Waiting for her chance to meet the President of the United States in the summer of 2012, Baylor’s 6-foot-8 center Brittney Griner could see her teammate, Shanay Washington, having trouble with one of life’s basic fundamentals.
There to be honored for winning the 2011-12 NCAA Division I women’s basketball championship, Washington, then a sophomore, extended her hand to Barack Obama and then everything ground to a stop.
“She was almost starting crying,” Griner said. “She was so nervous she forgot her own name. I was like [thinking to herself], ‘Yo girl, say your name.’ Me, I was just like, ‘What’s up, Mr. President.’ I was trying to explain to her that he [Obama] is just a person like us. It was a lot of fun.
“When I got there, I asked him, ‘Mr. President, can we hoop some?’ He [Obama] said, ‘No, we’re not hooping today. I’m not letting you block my shot.’ And I said, “I’m glad you know that because I would.’”
Over the last two decades the tradition of the President greeting the champions of major professional and collegiate sports has become a Washington tradition. And on Wednesday, the UConn women’s basketball team, which won its eighth national championship last season, will make its eighth trip.
UConn coach Geno Auriemma and his associate coach, Chris Dailey, have shaken the hands and exchanged small talk with three presidents since 1995 – Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama. This will be UConn’s third trip to the Obama White House since 2009, who referred to him as “Coach Geno” on their first trip.
“That was a humbling moment for me,” said Maya Moore, the former UConn All-American who made the trip twice with the Huskies and then again in May 2011 with the WNBA champion Minnesota Lynx. “Just being able to walk through the rooms on the tour; you think about how many people, how many presidents walked through these same halls and shaped the course of our history. I like history and thinking about where we [the nation] have come from. And the fact that the president was able to use us [female athletes] as examples for young girls, like his own daughters, to look up to was very fun.
“And he loves basketball. I remember after the 2009 national championship how he took us all out onto the court [on the White House grounds]. I remember Tina Charles, Renee Montgomery, Meghan Gardler and myself taking shots. But the four of us couldn’t make a shot. I remember the President telling us that he had the home court advantage. It was our only loss of the season.
Montgomery, now a guard with the Connecticut Sun, remembered it, too.
“The President can shoot,” she said.
These trips hold different meanings for those who take them.
“Meeting the president was the big thing for me,” said Crystal Langhorne of the Washington Mystics, who visited in 2006 with the University of Maryland’s championship team. “It was a great honor to have the opportunity to do that. We didn’t get to see too much of the White House, it was kind of a short visit. But it was day we will never forget. I remember President Bush being very charismatic.”
Obama, a native of Chicago, admits to being a big fan of the NBA’s Bulls and MLB’s White Sox. And he seems to enjoy the rapport with athletes. When the Detroit Shock visited in 2009, he enjoyed poking fun at coach Bill Laimbeer, the former arch-nemesis of the Bulls when he played for the Detroit Pistons.
“I’m a Chicago Bulls fan,” Obama said that day. “A few years ago, when the Bulls and the Pistons were thick in the middle of their rivalry, I never imagined that I’d be saying: Congratulations, Bill Laimbeer. … If I knew I was President then, to think that I’d be inviting them to the White House is hard to take.”
For some, like Washington, the experience can be totally nerve-racking.
“I remember being a little nervous about meeting the president,” said Minnesota Lynx guard Lindsay Whalen, who visited with the WNBA champions in 2011. “You don’t want to say the wrong thing at that moment in your life. You don’t want to spill anything on the rugs. I just stayed in line and did what everyone told me to do. “
Lynx coach Cheryl Reeve, an assistant on Laimbeer’s Shock team, just took it all in.
“I remember everything about it, whether it was the travel, the bus ride, walking in through the gates,” Reeve said. “It was cool to see our players have a chance to experience history. To see their faces light up like they were kids again as we walked through the various rooms [in the White House] was very special to me. I consider it as the pinnacle [of her career].”
For some, the visit is a chance to express thanks for the work the Obama administration has done.
“It was one of the highlights of my life,” said Indiana Fever coach Lin Dunn, who took her champions to Washington last month. “I’m a Southern democratic [from Tennessee]. I grew up in a staunchly democratic family and I have tremendous respect for President Obama and was thrilled to death when he was elected president.
“I am so thankful for all that he has done in his administration to help empower women. Whiile he was acknowledging us, it was a chance for me to personally thank him for all that he does for women’s equality, whether it be the Equal Pay Act, naming women to the Supreme Court; there’s so many things he’s done in his time that empower women.
“I was initially nervous when he walked in. But he does such a great job of helping everyone to relax. That’s what stuck in my mind. He introduced himself to everyone, asked us out names, shook our hands. By the time the ceremony actually began, everyone felt so comfortable because he made us feel that way.
And for others, like Diana Taurasi, who said she’s visited the White House four times with UConn and Phoenix Mercury, what’s memorable are just the unexpected funny moments.
“I remember the year we were there [with UConn] with the Syracuse men, who had won the men’s championship [in 2003],” Taurasi said. “We’re all waiting in the ballroom for the president to come in and Chris Dailey was having a fit because Carmelo Anthony had a head band on.
“She would not like it go, ‘He’s got a head band on, he’s got a head band on.’ I finally said to her, ‘You have a necklace on. What’s the difference?’ So that’s it, my fondest memory of all of my visits to the White House, CD [Dailey] not being able to let the Carmelo Anthony head band go.”