National Champion Huskies congratulated by President Obama

By Chris Golden - ReminderNews
Washington, D.C. - posted Wed., May. 18, 2011
President Obama congratulates the national champion UConn Huskies at the White House on May 16. Photos by Chris Golden.
President Obama congratulates the national champion UConn Huskies at the White House on May 16. Photos by Chris Golden.

The University of Connecticut men’s basketball team, under the direction of Hall-of-Fame Coach Jim Calhoun, received congratulations from President Barack Obama on Monday, May 16, during a White House ceremony to celebrate the Huskies’ national championship season.

It was the 10th time the university has seen one of its basketball programs hosted by the White House, and the third time for the men’s team, which previously won national championships in 1999 and 2004.

But, Calhoun said, for him every White House visit is different.

“With President Clinton, we stayed around for two and a half hours afterwards just talking,” he said after the event, held in front of about 100 supporters, fans and visitors from Connecticut in the East Room.

“With George W. Bush, a very nice guy, we just shook hands, and with President Obama we had a bit more of a personal connection,” Calhoun said.

The president is well known for his love of basketball. In fact, upon taking office, the president had basketball courts installed over the White House tennis courts on the South Lawn.

Before the ceremony, the team took to these courts, conducting a basketball clinic for about a dozen middle school students from Washington, D.C.’s Eliot-Hine Middle School.

“I have to be honest,” Obama said while addressing the team. “This is a bittersweet day for me. On the one hand, I get to congratulate a great team and a great coach on winning the national championship. On the other hand, I’m reminded once again that my bracket was a bust.”

The president had picked Kansas to win the NCAA championship this year, with Duke beating UConn in the Elite Eight. In fact, 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 in Houston. UConn defeated Butler, 53-41, to win the national championship on April 4.

“Let’s face it – this was a tough year for a lot of brackets because teams like this one shocked the world,” the president said.

This was the first White House visit for many players on the UConn team. However, star player Kemba Walker nearly missed the once in-a lifetime opportunity after his flight from New York was delayed.

“I was getting really nervous I was going to miss it,” Walker said, “and I didn’t want to miss seeing the president.” Walker missed the basketball clinic, but arrived in time for the ceremony.

The brief visit with the president lasted about nine minutes - enough time for remarks from Obama, Calhoun and Walker, hand shakes, a team photo, and the presentation of a custom UConn basketball jersey with the number “1” to the president.

“This was an underdog team,” Calhoun said. “Who would have thought nine months ago that we would be where we are today?

“But you know what? Yes we can. And, like you, Mr. President, yes we did,” Calhoun added, echoing the theme of Obama’s 2008 campaign.

Unlike when the UConn women’s national championship team visited the White House in 2009, there was no time for a presidential pick-up game of hoops.

But that didn’t stop Walker from challenging the president to a game of one-on-one.

“I’m ready,” Obama said.

“Do you think he’s got enough game in him?” Calhoun asked.

“As long as he’s wearing street shoes and a suit,” the president replied to laughter.

But there might be more opportunities for such a game in the future.

“You got a bunch of freshman [on the team], so I don’t see why these guys couldn’t go on a pretty good run here,” the president added. “But we couldn’t be prouder of them, and I know that the great state of Connecticut couldn’t be prouder of them, as well.”

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