Filling out NCAA tournament brackets with President Obama has become one of my favorite parts of March Madness. In the past 20 years, I've had the pleasure of riding on Air Force One with President Clinton and sipping Sam Adams at a White House Christmas party hosted by President George W. Bush.
But annually talking basketball with this President is pretty special.
Our ESPN group usually arrives at the White House two hours before our scheduled interview time. A crew of about 20 uses all of that time to set up cameras, lights and sound equipment in the Map Room while Andy Katz and I eagerly await the completed brackets, delivered by a White House aide.
Once we get those, a producer with neat penmanship (a prerequisite for this assignment) starts filling out the brackets with a dry-erase marker. She fills it in through the Elite Eight. The President will Sharpie in the rest of the picks while the cameras are rolling.
This year, we were thankful the early rounds were done in dry-erase marker. For the first time in my three years traveling to D.C. for "Barack-etology," the President made changes to his original women's bracket. Not once, but twice, he changed first-round winners. I imagine he gave more thought to those first-round matchups than most people.
He started with Penn beating Washington in the first round but eventually decided that Princeton would be the only Ivy League team getting a first-round victory. He originally went with St. John's over Auburn but amended that, giving the Tigers the victory. And though Seton Hall advanced in his final bracket, he had given the initial nod to Duquesne.
We have only 30 minutes with the President, so everyone is in position and ready to go when he enters the room. He has always been pleasant, positive and energetic in his time with us. He usually starts by busting on Andy, which puts everyone more at ease. He looks around the room and gives a blanket "Hello." (I'm always in the back, out of the way, but at 6 feet 5 in my heels, I have a perfect view of everything.) The President is then mic'd by the sound guy and Andy begins.
When Andy is done with the men's brackets, it's my turn. My favorite part of this process is the few minutes of small talk I have with the President while the men's white-board bracket is replaced on the easel by the women's. Last year, the President talked about Princeton and his admiration for their coach, Courtney Banghardt. This year, we talk about the Broadway show "Hamilton," and the previous day's freestyle White House rap by the show's creator and star, Lin Manuel-Miranda. Then the cameras roll and we talk brackets.
President Obama knows the women's game. He can hold a conversation about the best teams and best players. He is a true basketball fan. While it didn't make it into the final cut of "Barack-etology," he talked at length about how much the players and game have improved over the course of the last decade.
When the women's bracket is complete and signed, the president takes a picture with the entire crew. Andy does a great job making sure the people who are working this project for the first time meet POTUS and shake his hand. The president then leaves the room, shuttled off to the next event. In this case, he was meeting with the Prime Minister of Ireland, Enda Kenny.
Andy and I quickly convene with the producers to talk about the most interesting elements of the bracket. I then head outside to catch a cab to the airport, trying to make it home in time to hear about my kids' interesting days at school while putting them to bed.
But I don't leave before making a quick stop in the bathroom. The disposable hand towels at the White House are embossed with the seal of the President, and it would be true March madness if I didn't leave with a few.