WASHINGTON D.C. - A lot of coaches (including, certainly, their own, John Calipari) commented throughout this past winter about the classy way this 2011-12 group of Kentucky Wildcats approached each other and the game they so clearly love: basketball.
And it was oh-so-fitting that President Barack Obama and staff gave Calipari and his Wildcats a classy reception in the early evening Friday at the White House that honored a group of Kentucky coaches and players who brought the university and its fans so much pride and joy after they won the school’s eighth national championship this past month in New Orleans.
Calipari said his players were extremely eager to meet our nation’s president.
“This team, when they won that championship (67-59 over Kansas) on that court in New Orleans, they were jumping up and down, not saying, ‘We did it, we did it!’ but saying, ‘We’re going to the White House!’” Calipari said.
“Because they wanted to meet you,” Calipari added, looking at Obama, who was both gracious and amusing during a 15-minute or so meet and greet with the players and a large group of UK fans in a White House East wing ballroom (there was a private reception for the team and fans that lasted longer). “On behalf of Big Blue Nation and the Commonwealth of Kentucky, we are honored and humbled to be here.”
Obama opened his remarks poking fun at himself for picking North Carolina (though he did not name the Tar Heels in his comments Friday) to win the national title. He had UNC over UK in the final game.
“I knew Kentucky was good, of course, but they had all these freshmen,” Obama said. “Keep in mind, last year three of the starting five were still in high school, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist couldn’t even vote yet. They had all been big fish in small ponds (in high school). But they bought into a system, they understood the concept of team, and they did something special.
“And a lot of credit goes to their outstanding coach, John Calipari,” Obama added. “When he recruited these players, he started by asking them, ‘Do you want to win a national championship?’ The answer was yes. Then he asked, ‘Can you do it by yourself?’ The answer was no. So he took a roster of six former All-Americans and got them to do something impressive, and that was to share the ball. He had six players average in double figures this year, and nobody averaged more than nine shots a game. And if you didn’t play defense, you didn’t play.
“As a result, the Wildcats started winning. At one point they won 23 straight. They spent the final eight weeks of the season ranked No. 1, and they cruised through the tournament.”
Obama went on to comment specifically on the remarkable contributions of freshman center Anthony Davis (“He never shot a lot of field goals, and yet he still controlled the game,” Obama said of Davis), Doron Lamb for the way he stepped up in the Final Four wins over Louisville and Kansas, and for senior Darius Miller, the latter more or less for being such a versatile player and unselfish leader.
“The only player in Kentucky history to be named Mr. Basketball, to win a state championship in high school AND win a national title at Kentucky,” Obama said of Miller. “If Darius runs for governor, he’ll do all right.”
The President then congratulated Miller and fellow senior Eloy Vargas for receiving their diplomas at UK this past Sunday, and congratulated all the Wildcats for the immense amount of community service work they reputedly have done around Central Kentucky and beyond.
Calipari then presented Obama with a UK jersey with Miller’s No. 1 on it. Vargas presented Obama with a basketball autographed by the team (Vargas amused everyone, including President Obama, by tossing the ball several yards to the president instead of merely handing it to him), and Calipari made the unprecedented move to present Obama with a UK national championship ring.
“I must say, this is a first,” Calipari told Obama.
Obama appeared genuinely touched by the “wonderful set of gifts.”
It was a warm and nice way for this Kentucky team to put some icing on top of the cake, so to speak. And it showed, even more remarkably, that maybe sports can cut across partisan political lines and bring all sides together in a constructive manner like few things can.
So maybe it was fitting that this Kentucky team shared some warmth with the president. As we all know by now, these Wildcats know plenty about team work and working together for the common good.