WASHINGTON D.C. -- The Kentucky contingent went through two practice runs on the dais to make sure they got it just right. No one, after all, wants to mess up the procession into the East Room and the presentation of a jersey, ring and ball to President Barack Obama.
There was a scattering of people in the room at first, mostly security personnel and White House staffers when Kentucky first entered. But as soon as the doors opened to allow invited guests in, Kentucky fans painted the East Room blue.
They weren’t all dressed in UK colors, but they sure were boisterous -- even starting a few C-A-T-S chants.
Teams arriving for the now-annual celebrations that started under the late President Reagan are always celebratory, but not usually as euphoric as Friday.
After witnessing three of the past four NCAA men’s basketball champs to come to the White House, I can tell you that no fan base has rivaled Kentucky's.
“I didn’t know it was going to be like that,’’ UK senior Darius Miller said. “It filled up fast. It was empty and then in five seconds it was full.’’
This is a program that can easily sell out a mundane practice. So no one should be surprised that the Big Blue Nation showed up.
But there was more to Friday then the annual meet-and-greet with the President. This was the last time the Kentucky players were together as one team.
Five of them declared early for the NBA draft, and that group -- as well as Miller -- will likely get a chance to be together at the Chicago pre-draft camp next month and again at the NBA draft in June. But all of them together? This was it.
And what better way to go out than a ribbing from the Commander-in-Chief.
President Obama had picked, like many of us, Kentucky in the final as he filled out his bracket for ESPN for the fourth straight year. He originally wanted to go with the Wildcats to win it all, but changed his mind and chose North Carolina in the end.
“I had them in the championship game," he said Friday. "But in the end, I thought, they got all these freshmen. These guys are too young. And keep in mind, at this time last year, three of the Wildcats’ five starters were still in high school. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist couldn’t even vote yet.
“But let’s face it, sometimes talent trumps experience. And sometimes, a bunch of young players, even if they’re used to being big fishes in their ponds, even if they’ve never played together before, they can buy into a system, they understand the concept of team, and they do something special right away. And that’s exactly what happened in Kentucky.”
As soon as they got to the White House, the Wildcats did what they had throughout the season.
They stayed together as a pack one last time, taking pictures with their iPhones, enjoying a fast-paced tour as quick as the run Kentucky put on Baylor in the Elite Eight.
National player of the year and projected No. 1 pick Anthony Davis as well as Doron Lamb, Marquis Teague, Terrence Jones, Miller and Kidd-Gilchrist were dressed in fine-tailored suits, not Kentucky uniforms. But they were a team just the same.
They loved cruising through the White House movie theater, posed in front of a bust of Abraham Lincoln, and just enjoyed each other’s company.
“I may never coach another group like this,’’ Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “I’ve never seen a group come together for each other since I’ve been coaching.’’
Lamb said that this team truly liked being with each other on and off the court. This group was selfless from the first game to the final against Kansas in New Orleans.
Miller couldn’t get over how wild his UK career has been. He was recruited by Billy Gillispie, grew and fostered under Calipari, won a title and met two presidents. Former President Bill Clinton was in Lexington recently.
“This is just another great memory to add to the collection,’’ Miller said.
Kentucky had a traveling party of 51 (would you expect anything smaller?). And while the Wildcats played in front of 70,000-plus at the Superdome, this rivaled the anxiety of that night.
The players said they were a bit more nervous walking out on the Dome court, but there were anxious moments in meeting Obama and being on this smaller, albeit historic stage.
Calipari, who spoke after the President, was as anxious as anyone.
“I was just so nervous,’’ Calipari said. “I didn’t breath until I stepped away from the podium. I’ve given speeches to 15,000 and I was more nervous doing this.’’
But now that the celebration of the title is over, the Wildcats will go their separate ways. The semester is finished. The early-entrants will select agents and get ready for the NBA draft. Miller and Eloy Vargas, the two seniors, will prepare for their post-college life, which will include professional basketball.
Freshman Kyle Wiltjer is the lone productive returenee. He said it will be odd to lose all of these players, but he’s up for the challenge and said he can’t wait to play with the new players.
Kentucky brought in another strong class, a new crop, this time led by another star in the middle named Nerlens Noel.
But for Friday, for one last time in front of a strong, loud and proud contingent from Big Blue Nation, the 2012 champs were together.
“We had such a special group of guys and had such a successful year,’’ Jones said. “For this to be the last thing is such a great way to finish.’’