Friday, January 4, 2013
King James visits the President
By Michael Wallace ESPN.com
WASHINGTON -- If LeBron James and the Miami Heat repeat as NBA champions this season, President Barack Obama would like to think he contributed a major assist.
After all, the nation's commander-in-chief believes he played a small role in last season's title run that ended with a Finals victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder and ultimately landed the Heat their White House visit on Monday afternoon.
"A few of them were here a couple of years ago for a pickup game on my birthday," Obama said in a ceremony with Heat players, coaches, staff and family members. "Now, I'm not trying to take all the credit. But I think that going up against me prepared them to take on [Thunder catalysts] Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. It sharpened their skills. I gave them the competitive edge they needed. Part of the reason they came back [Tuesday] is they wanted another shot at the old guy."
Several of the Heat's stars tried to play it cool in the days leading to the team's White House visit. They were appreciative of the opportunity, but many of them who have met Obama before carried themselves in interviews last week as if it would be just another celebrity photo op.
But by the time James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh toured through halls, libraries and meeting rooms of the world's most powerful residence, the kids came out in each of those grown men with numerous career awards, All-Star recognitions and multi-million dollar contracts.
Ten-day contract, Mr. President?
In fact, James and Wade could barely contain themselves when they greeted Obama at the podium and presented the president with an autographed basketball and an authentic Heat jersey with 'Obama' and the No. 44 on the back.
Obama graciously accepted the gifts, but the avid basketball fan reminded the Heat that he is a Chicago Bulls fan.
The Heat didn't hold that against him.
James, one of the NBA's most composed and dominant players on the basketball court, nervously rambled through his comments before he finally glanced at Obama and then looked into the crowd gathered in the East room.
"We're in the White House right now," James gushed sheepishly. "Which is like, like Mama, I made it."
It was the second time in about a week that James let his guard down and showed the world he can be just a kid at heart. Last Friday, James revealed his playful side when he exuberantly ran back onto the court to tackle a fan who had made a half-court shot to win $75,000 from his foundation during the Heat's home win against the Detroit Pistons.
And despite all of the things James accomplished over the past year -- winning his first championship, his second Olympic gold medal, his third league MVP and Sports Illustrated's Sportsman of the Year -- Monday's meet-and-greet might have been the highlight of his career.
"First of all, I didn't even know I was going to speak, but [Obama] was like, 'Hey, go ahead, it's your world,'" James said of the moment he walked to the podium to stand with the president. "I'm just not taking these moments for granted. This is where the game has taken us. It's continuing to take us to places we would never, ever have the opportunity to be at if it wasn't for the game of basketball. It doesn't seem real. When you're a kid growing up, you see the president on television. You see him in books. But you never think he would actually say your name, shake your hand, whatever the case may be."
White House visits after championship seasons aren't necessarily a new experience for some members of the Heat. James said players and coaches spoke during Monday's tour of how assistant coach Bob McAdoo met Ronald Reagan when his old Lakers teams won titles in the early 1980s. Heat team president Pat Riley, who was then coach of the Lakers, didn't attend Monday's ceremony because he was coping with the flu and remained in Miami.
Heat forward Shane Battier, who won NCAA championships with Duke, has also frequented the White House. Battier's former college teammate Reggie Love served as an aid to Obama during his first term in office.
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Beyond that, both Wade and forward Udonis Haslem were members of the Heat's 2005-06 championship team who met with then-President George W. Bush. Wade has been around Obama as much as any professional athlete.
Not only was Wade selected to participate in the president's 'Fatherhood Initiative' two years ago, he also attended numerous Obama fundraisers held in South Florida, including one at the home of former Heat player Alonzo Mourning, who is now an executive with the Heat.
But there was plenty that made Monday trip seem like it was the first time any of the players had the experience.
Obama met privately with the team to thank players for being role models as fathers and also for spending time with military personnel, which included a trip after the ceremony to visit wounded soldiers at a local hospital.
"Obviously, we love to be talked about for what we do on the basketball court -- that's well documented," Wade said. "Even though we're not doing it for publicity, it's always great to be acknowledged for what you do that's near and dear to your heart. He made sure in the private room that he mentioned it to all of us, that he was proud of us."
Obama worked from the outset to make the Heat's players feel at ease Monday. During his opening remarks, Obama mentioned the dozens of extra cameras and reporters in the White House for the event. If it's one thing the president and the Heat have in common -- at least before Miami won the title last season -- it was the intense media scrutiny.
"This is a lot of cameras in one place," Obama said. "But for the Heat, this is what practice looks like."
The room immediately erupted in laughter. Meanwhile, James stood back and took it all in. Add yet another memorable moment to his Miami résumé.
"Without the game of basketball, I wouldn't be here," James said. "I know that. I'm not going to kid myself. The game has given me so much. That's why I try to give everything to the game each time I go onto the floor."