Calling it a special moment for him personally and for his program, University of Connecticut Coach Jim Calhoun and his national champion men’s basketball team visited The White House on Monday to receive congratulations from President Obama and to present him with a custom UConn basketball jersey.
It was the third visit for Calhoun and the UConn men’s program, which also won national titles in 1999 and 2004.
“This team, was a good team,” Calhoun said of the improbable 2011 champs after a brief ceremony in the East Room of The White House. “They hung in there and they stayed together and this is what happens. We felt determination and we felt an opportunity.”
The President, known for his love of basketball and frequent weekend pickup games with personal aide Reggie Love, admitted that UConn was not his first pick when he filled out his brackets at the beginning of the NCAA tournament.
In his 2011 bracket, the President selected Duke to beat UConn in the Elite Eight and Kansas to take the title. But Kansas knocked off Duke in the Sweet Sixteen and the Huskies squeaked out a win against Arizona, 65-63, to advance to the Final Four.
UConn defeated Butler, 53-41 to win its third national championship in school history on April 4.
“So the next time you guys decide to reel off 11 straight wins, please let me know ahead of time,” the President joked.
For many members of the UConn team, this was their first visit to The White House.
But before they could meet the President, they had some practice to do.
About a dozen students from the District of Columbia’s Eliot-Hine Middle School, were invited to a coaching clinic with Calhoun and members of the championship team.
The clinic was held on the Presidential basketball courts that Obama had installed over The White House tennis courts when he took office.
Speaking to the students with the Washington Monument in the background and a few raindrops breaking the humidity of the spring day, Assistant Coach Kevin Ollie invoked his own personal story.
“I grew up in Los Angeles, and I never would have thought then that I would have had the opportunities that I’ve had, and to end up here at The White House,” Ollie said.
“You guys can do anything you want if you put your mind to it,” he said.
Later, Calhoun said this was a lesson he also spoke about with his team.
Before they arrived Monday at The White House, the Huskies stopped at the Lincoln Memorial on the National Mall. Calhoun said he wanted his team to reflect on the words of the president that led that nation through years of division and civil war.
“In many ways, President Obama reflects a great deal of where society has come,” Calhoun said. “In watching [Obama’s] rise, we have witnessed history.”
Calhoun also drew parallels back to his team.
“This basketball team, by the way, was kind of an underdog. And who would have thought maybe nine months ago we would be here. But you know what? Yes, we can. And much like you, Mr. President, yes, we did,” Calhoun said.
Overall the atmosphere was celebratory as the Commander-in-Chief shook hands with each player and posed for a team photograph. Obama was presented with a special UConn team jersey with his name and the player number “1.”
“This is a great day for the state of Connecticut,” Obama said.
And with the freshman talent on the UConn team, the President said he would not be surprised if he were to welcome UConn back to the White House later in his presidency.
“You got a bunch of freshman, so I don’t see why these guys couldn’t go on a pretty good run here,” the President said.