President Barack Obama honors Kentucky basketball champions

ctate@mcclatchydc.comMay 4, 2012 

WASHINGTON — Kentucky coach John Calipari and the national champion Wildcats basketball team presented President Barack Obama with a No. 1 jersey and a championship ring during a ceremony in the White House East Room on Friday.

"This is some nice gear," Obama said when given the jersey, the ring and a basketball signed by the team.

The president said it was his fourth year filling out an NCAA Tournament bracket in public, and he said it's hit or miss.

"What I've learned is that if I make the right picks, I look like a genius," he said. "But if things go the other way, then a team like Kentucky gets to come to my house and remind me, in person, that I was wrong."

Obama said he didn't pick Kentucky to win the championship in part because three of the five starters were freshmen.

"But let's face it, sometimes, talent trumps experience," Obama said.

**At the Barnstable Brown Derby Eve Gala, UK basketball player Darius Miller talked about the team's visit to the White House to meet President Barack Obama earlier that day.**

He singled out freshman Anthony Davis, from the president's hometown of Chicago, who was named Most Outstanding Player in the tournament. Obama said he visited Davis' school as a senator and teased Davis about growing 8 inches between his sophomore and senior years of high school.

"In fact, he has grown an inch since he got to the White House," the president joked.

Obama also noted the accomplishments of Darius Miller, a senior and former Mr. Basketball from Mason County who won a state championship when he was in high school. Only one other player, Louisville's Darrell Griffith, has been Kentucky's Mr. Basketball and won a state title and an NCAA championship.

"I'm pretty sure Coach Cal is right that if Darius decides to run for governor he'll do all right in Kentucky," the president said.

Obama gave Calipari credit, too. "My understanding is, when he recruited these players, Coach started off by asking them some simple questions: Do you want to win a national title? The answer was yes, apparently."

The crowd of family members and others cheered "Cats, Cats, Cats" at the end of the ceremony. When Obama posed with Calipari and the team, members of the audience stood up to take cellphone pictures, blocking the shot, so to speak, for professional photographers at the back of the room.

It's long been a tradition for presidents to congratulate championship teams. The event lasts about 10 minutes, with the president and the coach making some remarks. Friday's ceremony originally was scheduled to take place in the Rose Garden, but the threat of rain moved it indoors.

Calipari said the team was excited about the White House visit from the moment the buzzer sounded when Kentucky won the title in New Orleans.

"They wanted to meet you," Calipari told Obama.

The team, which beat Kansas 67-59 on April 2, boarded a plane for Washington about noon for the 5 p.m. event.

Obama called Calipari the day after the team's tournament win to offer congratulations and said he looked forward to meeting the team at the White House. The team received the invitation Tuesday, while Obama was on a trip to Afghanistan to sign a security agreement with Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

The last-minute invitation caused a minor political dust-up: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican and one of the president's biggest adversaries in Congress, was invited to attend but declined. The reason: He planned to attend festivities in the run-up to Saturday's Kentucky Derby, another storied state sports tradition. The conflict appeared to be more a quirk of scheduling than anything else.

The White House trip caps a whirlwind year for the players, some of whom were not old enough to vote in the last presidential election. But Obama took note of the young team’s talents, saying he expected success to continue. "Everybody’s got to take a good look now, because a whole bunch of these guys are going on to the NBA,” he said. “Who knows, one of them might end up here in Washington."

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