By Jim Henry

jhenry@joplinglobe.com

Stationed at the Marine Corps base at Kaneohe Bay, Hawaii, 1st Lt. Nick Smith missed coming home to Pittsburg, Kan., for Christmas.

But his consolation prize wasn’t bad.

On Christmas Eve, Smith played pickup basketball with President-elect Barack Obama.

“I was with some friends at the Marine Corps gym working out, and we heard rumors that Obama might be coming in,” Smith said. “Fortunately the rumor was true. We were working out, bench-pressing right next to him. The next day we came back, and he came back and played basketball.

“We had a feeling he would come back at the same time. We approached the Secret Service guys protecting him and asked them if they would ask President Obama to come play with us. He came and met us and played a little basketball with us.

“Then he ate dinner with the Marine Corps on Christmas Day. He did a lot of nice things that week.”

Smith, the son of Chuck and Beth Smith and a graduate of St. Mary’s-Colgan and Pittsburg State, was at the gym with two fellow Marines, one guy from the Navy and a civilian who was working out on base when they were joined by Obama.

“I was pretty impressed with his jump shot,” Smith said. “I thought he would be some politician coming in to shoot the breeze with the Marines. Not at all.

“He could shoot it. He hit a couple of 3s from NBA range. He had a good left-handed jump shot, a nice smooth ‘J.’ He definitely played high school basketball. No way you could have that shot and not play.”

Obama, in fact, did play prep basketball. He was one of the top players on the 1979 state championship team from Punahou High School in Honolulu, the largest private school in Hawaii. He wore No. 23 before Michael Jordan made the number popular.

“He played hard. He’s in great shape,” Smith said. “He’s about 6-2, the second tallest guy in the group. One of my buddies is 6-5. He worked out before we played basketball. He was on the treadmill and he still came in and played very well.

“His wife (Michelle) was working out there, too. I was impressed with her workout, her exercise program.”

During breaks from basketball, Smith visited with Obama.

“We talked a little bit,” Smith said. “I told him I was from Kansas, and he said his mother was born and raised in Kansas. He knew about the Kansas area.

“He was great. He was very personable. ... I really missed coming home, but it was a pretty cool experience. I got to meet him before he took office.

“I’m not going to say who I voted for, but after meeting him, I feel good. I’m one who thinks President Bush did a good job, and I think Barack Obama will do a great job as well.”

Smith said he is coming to California this week for additional training, and he may be deployed to Iraq later this year.

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