After an exciting day at the White House that included a private tour of the residence, President Barack Obama addressed a full house in the building’s East Room with the NBA Champions gathered behind him.
“Congratulations to the Los Angeles Lakers for winning your 15th NBA title and fourth in the last 10 years,” said Obama. “I still get enormous pleasure from watching great athletes, and nobody exemplifies excellence in basketball better than the Los Angeles Lakers.”
There are only so many people in the world that can command complete control of a room that also features Kobe Bryant and Phil Jackson, but many of the players could hardly contain beaming smiles as the President praised their accomplishments.
“I think they’re in awe,” said Phil Jackson. “I really do.”
“A lot of us never thought we would see this day,” said Jordan Farmar before even attending the event. “I feel very special to be apart of it and to have the chance to share this with my teammates – we all get along and really care about each other, so it’s really meaningful.”
The team, in unison, could easily agree upon that sentiment after the ceremony.
During a typically terrific nine-minute speech, Obama also managed to engender frequent laughs from both the audience and the team. Perhaps the funniest part of his address came after he conveyed his excitement about meeting Phil Jackson, when he mentioned Lakers legend Magic Johnson (standing next to Kobe Bryant) while acknowledging Jackson’s championships.
“I do want to point out that six of them came with the Bulls,” said Obama, a big time Chicago fan. “You remember that, Magic?”
That one had all in attendance cracking up, particularly after Obama turned towards Magic to pantomime Michael Jordan’s right-hand-to-left-hand layup in the 1991 Finals, when Jackson’s Bulls defeated Johnson’s Lakers 4-1.
“It was really a special moment in time that I’m going to always remember that the President of the United States trash-talked Magic Johnson,” said Johnson. “And me restraining myself not to come back at him. He was the only man on earth that ever trash-talked me and I (didn’t) say anything … it was a great moment.”
Obama, of course, promptly went on to praise Johnson.
“We’re honored to have one of the all-time greats in NBA history, Magic Johnson,” he said. “Magic did pretty well during his time with the Lakers – he wasn’t bad. Part of what makes Magic special wasn’t just how he played on the court but also his infectious enthusiasm about life and what he’s now doing with businesses in black communities, he’s just been an outstanding leader in our country for a long time.”
Next up, Kobe Bryant.
“Of course I have to acknowledge Kobe Bryant, one of the most competitive players I’ve ever seen,” said Obama. “He has MVP’s under his belt, he’s the youngest player to ever reach 25,000 points in his career, and he’s playing with a broken finger.”
Bryant explained that in an exchange between himself and Obama before the speech, they shook hands, but Obama immediately pulled his hand back to make sure he wasn’t squeezing Kobe’s finger too hard. Bryant certainly appreciated that the President was so aware, as did the rest of the players and assistants when Obama called them all by name.
“It was nice that he had done his homework,” said assistant coach Brian Shaw. “He knew a little bit about everybody from Kobe to the coaching staff … I was impressed.”
“Absolutely,” Bryant agreed. “I know that everybody understood the significance and the magnitude of it. It’s great to see that … (President Obama) is someone who I obviously got behind and he’s in charge of the country, so it’s just a special feeling being the first NBA team to come to the White House.”
Yet Bryant, whose smile from the ceremony remained on his face as he addressed the press afterward, was most excited to share the experience with his family.
“To me that’s the coolest part about it,” he said. “To see my wife and my two daughters sitting there. They’re fully aware of who he is, and it’s pretty cool to see. It was perfect.”
Obama went on to describe that while the Lakers clearly never lost their focus on the court last season – even citing the “1-2-3 Ring!” chant led by Odom before each game – they also recognized the impact that can be made off the court.
“This team knows that being a champ is about more than trophies and rings,” he said. “It’s about being a winner off the court, and giving back to those that are less fortunate. The Lakers and the NBA have always been about serving others … and that tradition continued last week when the NBA players association, led by Derek Fisher, pledged to donate one million dollars to support relief efforts in Haiti.”
The President also specifically mentioned the contributions of Pau Gasol and Jordan Farmar to the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, and thanked the team for putting on a Monday morning community event with fifth graders from a local Washington D.C. school.
Shaw noted the irony in that visit at the Verizon Center, when the kids looked up to the Lakers much like the Lakers looked up to the President.
“Just how the kids were kind of starry eyed when we were trying to get them organized so that we could do the clinic, I jokingly said (to the players at the White House) that now we’re the kids at the clinic,” explained Shaw. “Everybody’s looking at him just like they were looking at us.”
And so it was as Obama offered the last words.
“I want to thank the entire Lakers organization for your service, for the great joy that you have given the city of Los Angeles and also the incredible competition that your organization has graced the basketball court with for decades now.
“If this season is anything like the last one, I know you have your sights set on the NBA Finals, so we might see you here before long.”