A passion for hoops is just one mystic chord between the two lanky pols. A deeper one lies in El Dorado—the Kansas town, not the mythical gold kingdom.

At the end of January 2008, when Obama and Hillary Clinton were fighting it out for endorsements, alternating bruising wins and losses in New Hampshire and Iowa and Nevada, Sebelius, then the Kansas governor, took a leap and endorsed Obama in El Dorado, not far from Wichita. The endorsement mattered. It came from a woman, a New Democrat, and a pantsuit-favoring governor who wasn’t endorsing Hillary. At the time, Sebelius enjoyed a high profile as an up-and-coming Dem who had delivered the response to George W. Bush’s State of the Union speech just a day earlier.

El Dorado was where Obama’s maternal grandfather had been raised, with the hometown of his grandmother just up the road. “I wasn’t there that day,” recalls Jarrett. “But I’ve heard a lot about it. It reflected on her strength and independence.” “They’ve only gotten closer since then,” says Dan Glickman, the longtime Democratic congressman from Wichita who has a unique vantage point having served as Agriculture secretary and knowing both.

Indeed, the ties between the two have grown. Sebelius is not one of the guys like Deputy Chief of Staff Rob Nabors and Chief of Staff Denis McDonough or a social friend like Susan Rice. But the president has been impressed both by Sebelius’s persistence and her loyalty and, hard as it is to imagine now, her political smarts as another Midwesterner who’s won statewide. It’s easy to forget that the road to Obamacare’s passage was brutal and there was no more enthusiastic cheerleader than Sebelius—whose moderate Kansas credentials helped sell the plan. Before that, she stepped into the HHS slot without fuss when Sen. Tom Daschle’s nomination faltered before it began.