Commentary

President's picks: Behind the scenes

Updated: March 16, 2012, 10:52 AM ET
By Doris Burke | espnW

Earlier this week, ESPN basketball analyst Doris Burke traveled to the White House to interview President Barack Obama as he filled out his bracket for the NCAA women's basketball tournament. This is Burke's account of the event.

There's nothing like an appointment with the leader of the free world to get you out of a traffic ticket.

On Monday morning, I was racing from my home in Rhode Island to Bristol, Conn., with that night's women's tournament selection show -- not to mention the next day's trip to the White House -- on my mind. I was so amped up that I lost track of speed ... until a policeman pulled me over to remind me.

"Ma'am, you were going 71 in a 50 mph zone," he said sternly. "Where are you going?"

"I'm sorry, officer," I told him. "I'm a little distracted. I work for ESPN, and I'm driving to Bristol to go on television tonight, and then tomorrow I'm going to see the president."

"What president?"

"The president of the United States."

He raised his eyebrows and took a closer look at my license while I nattered on about how nervous I was about my White House assignment. He ended up letting me go without a ticket.

Those nerves weren't something I was faking in order to gain the sympathies of the police on Route 1 in Rhode Island. I was legitimately nervous for my visit with President Barack Obama, even though this was my third straight year meeting him at the White House for the event known as Barack-etology. Normally, by the time you've done a particular big game or broadcast once or twice, you're comfortable with it. But when you're going to meet with the president, there's a nervous energy there, every time. You know you're going to be standing face to face with the leader of the free world, so there are butterflies.

[+] EnlargeDoris Burke and President Obama
Official White House Photo by Pete SouzaDoris Burke's observes President Obama's picks. His national champ: Baylor.

Entering the Hallowed Halls

By midday Tuesday, I had touched down in Washington. Getting into the White House was actually a little bit easier than I expected. Sometimes in basketball we talk about well-prepared teams "doing their work early." Well, at the White House, they do their work early. We had to provide all kinds of personal information to the president's staff prior to our arrival, so when you arrive, they know who you are and why you're there. I had to pass through two fairly significant gates -- the first where you announce yourself by intercom and they check a list, and the second where you and all your personal belongings pass through an X-ray screening machine, like at the airport.

Once I got inside, a young White House staffer escorted me to the library, where we'd be meeting with the president. (We were also in the library last year; in 2010, we were in the map room.) One thing I've learned from doing this a couple of times is you don't go anywhere in the White House unescorted. There's a variety of White House personnel, and one might pass you off to another, but you are never in a room alone without a staffer.

When I arrived in the somewhat small, square-shaped library, there was a flurry of activity, with about 20 or 25 people buzzing around the two enormous boards that had been set up for the men's and women's tournament brackets. Using picks the president had made in advance and passed along to us through his staffers, we went ahead and started filling in the big boards -- up to the Round of 32 for the men's bracket and up to the Round of 16 for the women's. It's just more efficient for us to start from that point with the president because he is, as one can imagine, somewhat pressed for time.

It's no easy task to write in the teams for those early rounds. We picked the producers with the best handwriting to fill out the boards -- first in dry erase, in case they made a mistake, and then in permanent marker after everything had been triple-checked. The president uses permanent marker only, of course.

The White House staffers had nicely offered to let Andy Katz and I avail ourselves of their makeup person, so we were led out of the library and down the hall to this little ancillary office to have our makeup done. The first thing I noticed about this room was the two-foot-wide men's bracket hanging up on the wall. Then, while I was in the chair, the makeup artist and another female staffer started talking about which teams they were picking in the tournament, and how they needed to get their picks submitted before the president asked them where their brackets were. That exchange erased any lingering doubt about whether this was a legitimately basketball-obsessed White House.

After makeup, we walked back to the library, treading on the wide red carpet you often see on television, and passed the "dish room," which I know from "The American President," one of my all-time favorite movies. Unfortunately, I couldn't go in; you're not exactly allowed to wander the halls. But I was dying to walk into the "dish room" and take a peek at the different administrations' china patterns.

Clear a Path for the President

As lighthearted as Barack-etology is, there was a point in time when the atmosphere in the library changed and things started to get a little bit serious. President Obama was scheduled to appear at 2:30, and about 10 minutes before that, the atmosphere in the room turned.

First, a young man came in and placed two glasses of water in proximity to where the president would be sitting. We were all told to step away from the two windows on the back wall, because that was the Secret Service's spot. Then, they told us to clear a path for the president, and the Secret Service agents came in and occupied their spots by the windows. So, for the briefest of moments, as they made sure the security was on point, the mood was serious, and we all felt the anticipation that the president was about to show up.

And then he did. When President Obama came in, I was standing behind several people. He looked around to see who was in the room, and when he caught my eye, he gave me a little wave. While he definitely has a presidential aura and presence about him, the president also has a very warm and engaging human element that makes him so compelling. He's really charismatic, and has an unbelievable smile. I marvel at his ability to compartmentalize and go, "OK, I'm going to spend 15 minutes on this NCAA tournament bracket, I'm going to enjoy every minute of it."

POTUS makes his picks

Obama filled out the men's bracket with Andy first. Then it was my turn to sit down with him. While they were miking me up and moving the boards with the brackets, there was a moment there to chat. He asked me how I was, and we exchanged a few pleasantries. Then he said, "I was watching 'SportsCenter' one night, and I saw that you were the recipient of the Silver Anniversary Award [from the NCAA], and I wanted to congratulate you." Then he said something about my hairstyle being different, and I said, "Mr. President, if that's the case, I can guarantee it wasn't my doing." He got a big chuckle out of that.

I started the interview off by asking him about his daughters, and he absolutely lit up talking about how they are now playing a game that is in his blood. He's clearly deriving so much pleasure from the time he is spending with them through basketball, which is really cool. Malia and Sasha obviously have wonderful role models in their parents, and the conversation about them provided an easy transition into this year's bracket, which itself features some teams with remarkable role models, including Delaware's Elena Delle Donne, whom he referenced.

The president's first pick was Baylor. When I asked him what he liked about the Lady Bears, he went right to Brittney Griner, and how she's 6-foot-8 and long and mobile. I agreed with him; Griner is unlike anything we've seen before in the women's game.

Then, instead of going straight chalk, Obama ended up picking two other No. 1 seeds (Connecticut and Notre Dame) and St. John's to go to the Final Four. The St. John's pick was a real shocker. He was aware the Red Storm had snapped Connecticut's 99-game home winning streak, and that they were healthy and playing well. He's big on momentum -- he said that with both the men's and women's brackets -- so he likes St. John's to go far. He's also big on guard play, so he is high on Notre Dame. He called Skylar Diggins a tremendous guard, and said it was hard for him to pick against a team that made the 2011 national championship game and came up just short.

The assignment of a lifetime

We didn't get as personal as we did in past years. In 2010, he asked me if I still play basketball. And I answered, "No, Mr. President, I tried to play about four weeks after I delivered my second child, but that old adage -- the mind is willing but the body is weak -- applied." He laughed, but still suggested we play pickup at some point. I told him I was confident that I could handle his left-hand shot.

Obama really is a basketball junkie. The first year I interviewed him, he asked me for the reason why Tennessee and Connecticut no longer play each other in the regular season. I told him, "Mr. President, Tennessee and Connecticut like one another about as much as the Democrats and Republicans do." And he just busted out laughing.

Whether we were talking about his daughters or the tournament, the president was very thoughtful in his responses. He's very measured, regardless of topic. But as much as he seems to enjoy this annual exercise, there was a real sense of the need to be efficient. ESPN gets 30 minutes with him to do both brackets, and it's a hard 30 minutes; they're not messing around. There is always another event he has to go to, always. The British prime minister was about to land at Andrews Air Force Base that afternoon Obama was talking to me, for goodness' sake.

Soon after the president took his (gracious) leave, we departed, as well. As we walked out, I let myself reflect a little more about how blessed I am to be able to pass through the doors of the White House, the site of such history and import. If I hadn't been able to push it all aside during the interview itself, I would have been completely overwhelmed by the magnitude of it. But on the way home, I let myself revel in the thrill of it a little bit more.

It is the most memorable assignment I've ever been given; I'm not sure anything else comes close, to be honest. It was amazing.

espnW editor Abigail Lorge contributed to this story.

Doris Burke

Basketball analyst and reporter
Doris Burke, a versatile basketball commentator who calls both men's and women's college and pro contests, has covered basketball for ESPN since March 1991, as well as the NCAA Division II Women's Basketball Championship. She works a variety of ESPN assignments, including regular-season and NCAA Tournament women's basketball, regular-season and Championship Week men's basketball, ESPN Regional Television men's Big East basketball contests, WNBA games, plus the WNBA Draft and more. In 2003, she added sideline reporting duties on select NBA telecasts.

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