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|President Barack Obama accepts a jersey and basketball from Lakers captains Derek Fisher (left) and Kobe Bryant (center) during a ceremony to honor the 2008-09 NBA champions in the East Room of the White House on Monday.|
WASHINGTON -- It's been just more than a year since Barack Obama was sworn in as president of the United States of America, and he still hasn't gotten around to converting the bowling alley in the White House into a basketball court.
But even without any 10-foot baskets in the building, the Lakers' arrival to the East Wing of the White House on Monday to be recognized for their 2008-09 NBA championship sure made the whole place feel like a basketball arena."The only thing that is better than watching basketball is playing basketball, but I'm 48 and soon to be 49, and it's a little harder these days to move around on the court, especially when you're playing against guys who are half your age," President Obama said near the start of his remarks. "But I still get enormous, enormous pleasure from watching great athletes on the court, and nobody exemplifies excellence in basketball better than the Los Angeles Lakers last year." Obama spoke for a little bit more than seven and a half minutes, running up to the lectern to start his presentation like a player who runs from the bench to the scorer's table when his coach tells him he's going in the game. Like any effective sixth man, he made the most of his time. Obama first turned his attention to Phil Jackson and joked that Jackson could help out Congress by handing out books for Republicans and Democrats to read so they could start playing like a team. "I'm especially excited to meet Coach Phil Jackson, the Zen Master," Obama said. "I've been a fan of Coach Jackson's ever since his days running the triangle offense in Chicago. I want to congratulate him on his 10th NBA title, the most in history, but I do want to point out that six of them came with the Bulls." He has shown his support of the NBA before in his presidency, filming a special public service announcement for halftime of the 2009 All-Star Game in Phoenix and famously drinking a cold one while taking in a Wizards game from courtside seats, but Obama made sure to represent his Bulls in particular Monday. "You remember this?" Obama asked Magic Johnson, turning around to pantomime Michael Jordan's "spectacular move" in Game 2 of the 1991 NBA Finals when Jordan switched the ball from his right to left hand in midair for a layup. "[The Lakers] won the first game, so they were feeling cocky [John] Paxson was hitting all those shots anyway, that's not why we're here." Johnson just flashed his signature smile and reveled in the exchange afterward while the team relaxed in the Diplomatic Reception Room and snapped photos on the South Lawn. "What can you say when the president of the United States can trash-talk to you?" Johnson asked. "Normally I have a good comeback, but this time I had to let him slide. It was a special moment in time that I will always remember that the president of the United States, President Obama, trash-talked Magic Johnson. He was the only man on earth that I ever let trash-talk me and not say nothing." Obama said that Kobe Bryant was "one of the most competitive players I've ever seen," before mentioning that if he had a broken finger like Bryant did, he would "have trouble getting out of bed," much less leading a team on the court. "We had a good exchange in the back," Bryant said, beaming. "We shook each other's hands, and he immediately pulled his hand back, he wanted to make sure he wasn't squeezing the finger too tight. It was great." Bryant wasn't the only player Obama singled out. He gave credit to Derek Fisher, Pau Gasol and Jordan Farmar for their charitable contributions toward relief in Haiti. He mentioned Shannon Brown: "I was also told that Mr. Brown right here intends to win the dunk contest," and he quoted Lamar Odom. (Odom told a reporter that he would need to get the audio from his tape recorder so he could always hear the time the president said his name. Lakers trainer Gary Vitti overheard this and said, "Lamar, this is the White House, everything's recorded in here," without missing a beat.) All in all, Obama mentioned six of the 12 current Lakers by name in his speech, sounding more like a fantasy basketball owner than like the leader of the free world. "Obama is very familiar with basketball, and he knows most of the players by their names; some of the other presidents didn't," said Jackson, who was making his sixth White House trip as a returning NBA champ. "They weren't basketball fans to that extent." The most poignant moment of the afternoon occurred when Obama left the stage to greet some of the players' families sitting in the front row. While the President shook hands with Bryant's two daughters, Lakers executive vice president Jeanie Buss could be seen mouthing the words, "That's so cute" while wiping away tears. "That's the coolest part about it, seeing my wife and our two daughters sitting there," Bryant said, as proud as I've ever seen him, his cheeks literally flushed red from how hard he had been smiling as he watched as a proud father. "They're fully aware of who he is, they've studied him already, so it's pretty cool to sit there and watch them actually meet him." But the day really was about basketball. As much as Obama was honoring the Lakers, also he was honoring the game that has been his constant companion since long before there was Michelle in his life. He was basking in the game that means as much to him today when people call him "Mr. President" and his focus is his country winning a war in Iraq as it did to him in his youth when people called him "Barry" and his focus was his team winning a state title in Hawaii. His love affair with the game has led to some criticism (one late-night talk show joked that Obama's NCAA bracket -- which he filled out on ESPN, successfully predicting that the University of North Carolina would be the champion -- was the only thing that has gone right for him since taking office), but it's a genuine part of who he is, not some childhood hobby he still clings to like Peter Pan. There's a life force to basketball that sticks with you once you dedicate yourself to the sport. I saw it this morning at the airport in Toronto at 6:30 a.m. when I found myself talking to a Western Conference assistant coach who travels to do advance scouting for his team. It turns out we both grew up in the Philadelphia area playing hoops, me as a sub on my high school team, him as a starter at a small Division III college there. Instead of staring silently into our Starbucks cups and wiping the crusties out of our eyes, as the rest of the people waiting at the gate were, we found ourselves immersed in a "six degrees of Kevin Bacon" type conversation connecting the dots between all the coaches and basketball lifers our lives had in common even though the man is 20 years my senior. If I ever ended up in an airport with President Obama, I am 100 percent certain that I could just as easily have an impromptu conversation with him about how he thinks his brother-in-law Craig Robinson's Oregon State Beavers would match up against my Syracuse Orangemen. "He's a guy you'd love to have a Coke and a smile with," Johnson said so perfectly. "He's not a president that you're not familiar with. You feel like you know him already." Basketball hit the big time Monday. The members of Congress in attendance were introduced as "Lakers fans" before they were referenced by their full names, and when Obama exited the presentation, a pianist in the foyer adjacent to the East Room played "Sweet Georgia Brown" -- the Harlem Globetrotters' theme song -- rather than "Hail to the Chief." "It's just a special feeling being the first NBA team to come here to the White House [with Obama as president]," Bryant said after he presented the president with a yellow Lakers jersey with "OBAMA" and the No. 1 on the back and Fisher handed him a basketball that had been autographed by the team. Sometimes teams give the president the specialized uniform in a frame and the signed ball in a Lucite case. Maybe the Lakers figured the president could use a jersey to wear and a ball to play with when he finally gets that court put in.