News your connection to The Boston Globe

Obama supported by Brown basketball coach, his brother-in-law

PROVIDENCE, R.I. --Craig Robinson believes you can tell a lot about a guy by how he plays basketball, which is why he liked Barack Obama long before the Democrat decided to run for president.

Recalling a pickup game the two played in Chicago some 15 years ago when they were first getting to know each other, Robinson remembers that Obama was confident in his game without being arrogant. He took shots when he was open, but wasn't overly selfish. And he didn't show off his Harvard Law School pedigree.

"He never wore that on his sleeve, and you can tell the camaraderie that he'd have on the court with people who he didn't even know," Robinson said. "You knew that this guy had the ability to win people over."

Basketball and Obama are subjects Robinson knows well.

The first-year coach of the Brown University men's basketball team is also Obama's brother-in-law, a familial tie that's afforded him intimate access as Obama has ascended from a political novice to a U.S. senator waging a high-profile bid for the White House.

The men's relationship has spanned personal conversations about children and politics to casual family gatherings to watching and playing basketball together -- the details of daily life that few voters or the media ever witness. The character insights gleaned from those intimate moments have made Robinson an unabashed Obama booster and quick to plug his candidacy.

"I know him as a brother-in-law and friend more than I know him as a politician," said Robinson, whose younger sister, Michelle, married Obama in 1992.

Robinson, 44, and his sister grew up on the south side of Chicago, children of a city laborer and a secretary, in an upbringing he described as disciplined and valuing achievement.

Both went to Princeton, where Robinson starred as a two-time Ivy League player of the year before getting drafted by the NBA and then playing professionally in Europe. He left the sport for a time to work in business, serving as a vice president at Morgan Stanley.

His sister, 16 months his junior, went on to Harvard Law School and met Obama after he was hired as a summer associate at the same Chicago law firm where she worked.

"I think the fact that Barack likes basketball and can play basketball in a basketball family probably earned him some points," Michelle Obama said in a telephone interview.

Obama was always clear that politics inspired him, even more than law, Robinson said. He even hinted at his ambition at a family gathering early in the relationship.

"He said, you know, it'd be great one day if I could run for president. And I made a comment like, yeah, yeah that would be great -- come on over here and meet my Aunt Gracie," Robinson said.

The actual decision to run was much tougher. Robinson said his sister, concerned about guaranteeing a normal childhood for the couple's two daughters, had to be won over -- as did her mother. But the groundswell of public support that Obama -- who gained national attention with his speech at the 2004 Democratic convention -- received last fall made the candidacy seem especially feasible, Robinson said.

"This is one of those things that's more important than the individuals involved," Robinson said. "This is the ultimate team assignment. So everybody has to give up something to make this work."

Michelle Obama acknowledged a degree of uncertainty, but said it had more to do with her own personal feelings about whether entering politics was the best way to effect change.

"I'm one of the skeptics that Barack often talks about," she said. "Like most people, my view about politics -- and it's evolved, but it had been -- that politics is for dirty, nasty people who aren't really trying to do much in the world."

Robinson said he asked himself not whether Obama should run, but rather why he shouldn't.

"You could wait around until another opportunity, but you might not get another opportunity," Robinson said.

He has tried to impart that same confidence to his players. Hired last summer after six years as an assistant at Northwestern, Robinson said he wasn't sure the Brown team, which has struggled to crack the upper echelon of the Ivy League, could even win six games this season.

But heading into their final games of the season against Penn and Princeton this weekend, Robinson's Bears have equaled their win total -- 10 -- from last year. Players describe him as a demanding and motivational coach who instituted 5:45 a.m. practices last fall and is not afraid to shake up the lineup. He preaches perfection, said sophomore Scott Friske.

"During the games, he's cheering you on as much as the crowd is," Friske said.

But they say he's also deeply interested in their lives away from the game.

"Once you step off the basketball court, he's as down to earth as anybody," said Mark McAndrew, now Brown's leading scorer who averaged barely 10 minutes a game last season. "He has a very open-door policy."

Robinson aspires to win the Ivy League title, something Brown hasn't done since 1986. But he said his ambition pales in significance to Obama's.

"What we're doing is just a game," he said. "What he's doing, it affects so many different people."