Before the White House

Obama mentor provides a closeup of the President.

By Samantha Allen ’11

When Harvard law professor Charles Ogletree, mentor to President Barack Obama, spoke at the College last November, he told students that Obama has just one shortcoming: his fear of playing basketball against double-homicide convicted felons.

Sharing humorous, as well as inspiring, anecdotes from President Obama’s heyday as a student at Harvard Law, Ogletree said Obama’s greatest passion then, next to studying, was basketball. With this he launched into a story about the day a team of law school students and faculty ventured to Walpole State Prison in southern Massachusetts to play the penitentiary’s team. Obama asked his defense partner, “What are you in for?”

“Double murder,” the man replied.

Ogletree bellowed the account into his podium microphone as the audience laughed, adding that he recalled Obama played very poorly that day.

“After the game I was like, ‘Barack, what happened?’ Ogletree recalled. “He said ‘I had respect for the brother. I didn’t want to belittle him.’”

Ogletree won over the crowd with his stories. The Obama family, he said, has lived the modern American Dream.

“You would expect a young man like Barack to be on drugs, dead, or in jail,” said Ogletree. Instead, the former mentee went against incredible odds, first to win a seat in the U.S. Senate and then to win the presidential election. “[Barack] wrote a book called The Audacity of Hope, but he also had the audacity to hope,” he added.

Ogletree also credited the Obama success story to the energized youth of America, who came out in droves and voted in Obama’s favor. He said the excitement over the election, even from his eight-year-old granddaughter, exemplified the mobilized efforts of the younger generation.

 “We carried Obama in 2008, but he carried us too,” Ogletree continued. “He gave people an opportunity to participate.”

 While Ogletree was only a small part of the campaign’s efforts, he said he felt moved enough to say ‘Yes, we can’ — a line he claims Obama “borrowed” from him.

“When Barack had the option of graduating and becoming a $100,000-salary Supreme Court clerk, he turned it down,” Ogletree recounted. “He came to my office and said, ‘I made a promise to the people of Illinois that I would return to Chicago’s South Side and become a community organizer. Now, Tree, can I do that?’ To that I responded ‘Barack, yes you can.’”

Emerson Suites erupted in laughter, but Ogletree signaled to the crowd to stop.

“No. You know, that’s not funny at all,” he said, all the while smiling. “In three years of campaigning, I never once got the credit for that little sentence.”