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Love for hoops raises hopes

President-elect Obama's cabinet picks are hardwood-tested.

WASHINGTON - Team Obama's got game, and that's not trash talk.

Consider this basketball starting five in its prime: a 6-foot-5 shooter who played pro ball in Australia, an imposing rebounder in high school and college before joining the Marines, a cocaptain of his high school team in New York, and a star point guard known in high school as "Spo," for "Sportin'."

The fifth player? That would be the 6-1 lefthander with the smooth, double-clutch jump shot who boasted that even at 47, "I can get to the rim on anybody."

Just call Barack Obama the nation's First Hoopster.

To review those other players: The former pro is Arne Duncan, Chicago schools chief, dedicated pickup player with Obama, and his choice for education secretary; the rebounder is James Jones, the next national security adviser; the New York player is Eric Holder, attorney general-designate; and the point guard is Susan Rice, Obama's choice for U.N. ambassador.

Coming off the bench would be Timothy Geithner, treasury secretary-designate, who, like Obama, still plays an aggressive pickup game.

Forget team of rivals. This is a team of ballers.

"I think we are putting together the best basketball-playing cabinet in American history," said Obama, who is known for occasional trash-talking on the court.

Obama was quick to point out the non-hoops qualifications of his appointees, who have generally received positive, bipartisan reviews.

But the common thread of basketball among several members of his cabinet helps Obama make the case for his team-player approach to governing.

The impact of elevating basketball to presidential sport of choice has political and hoops junkies excited.

The new mayor of Sacramento, Calif. - former Cal and Phoenix Suns star Kevin Johnson - sees a cultural breakthrough.

"This is great for basketball and the country," Johnson said. "From the inner city of Chicago to China, basketball breaks down barriers and brings people together."

Other presidents were known for occasional participation in recreational sports. Think of George W. Bush and biking, Bill Clinton and jogging, John Kennedy and touch football, Dwight Eisenhower and golf.

But Obama has been a hoops fanatic since he played for his Punahou High School team, which won the Hawaii state championship in 1979.

He was nicknamed "Barry O'Bomber." A popular YouTube video shows him scoring on a fast break in the title game.

Basketball was more than just a sport for Obama, one of the few black kids in his school. As a teenager with his Kenyan father absent, Obama was struggling with his identity, and he wrote that "at least on the basketball court I could find a community of sorts."

And Obama worked hard at getting better. Keen observers of his recent pickup outings report that he has a well-rounded game, a reliable shot and surprising strength, despite California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's campaign-trail gibe about the president-elect's "scrawny little arms."

Obama can trade elbows, and in May he bruised a rib when Illinois Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias knocked him to the floor.

Obama has talked about putting a hardwood half-court in the White House. But imagine the president-elect, who played during the primaries in Indiana and North Carolina, taking his game to Africa or Asia.

"Basketball is increasingly an international sport, and there's also something uniquely American about it, so this suits Obama perfectly," said Matt Dallek, a historian at the University of California, Berkeley.