WASHINGTON — It's been more than 25 years since the Louisville Cardinals' men's basketball team visited the White House. But on Tuesday, when the team finally returned to celebrate its championship-winning season, it was greeted by a genuine basketball fanatic who just happens to be president of the United States.
President Barack Obama took a break from talking about hefty topics such as the economic downturn and an immigration overhaul Tuesday to welcome the NCAA champions to the White House to celebrate the team's success on and off the court.
"We're here to celebrate a Louisville team that always played hard, that always worked together, that stayed focused on one singular goal: to bust my bracket," joked Obama, standing behind the team, clad mostly in dark suits and red ties.
Obama, a Chicago Bulls fan who plays basketball when he can, releases his NCAA bracket every spring. This year, he picked Louisville and Indiana to play in the men's championship game but had predicted the Hoosiers would win the trophy.
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"This year I was close," he said to laughter. "I had the Cardinals in the title game, but I discounted the motivational power of making your 60-year-old coach get a tattoo."
The brief ceremony in the East Room, adorned with gold-colored curtains and chairs, was attended by lawmakers, Kentuckians and fans. Seated in the front row were Kentucky Republican Sens. Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul. Obama even singled out his political foe, McConnell, a proud alum of the school who frequently attends games.
Obama has continued a modern tradition going back to at least President Gerald R. Ford of inviting college championship teams to the White House. The Cardinals won previous championships in 1986 and 1980, appearing alongside Presidents Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter those years.
Obama praised the team for not only winning 35 games last season but also earning a 3.3 grade point average, organizing a beard-shaving event to raise money for the American Cancer Society and meeting with wounded veterans.
"I want to thank everybody with the Cardinals' organization for their outstanding performances, their leadership and contribution not just to Louisville, not just to Kentucky, but the entire country," he said.
Coach Rick Pitino presented the president with a red Louisville slugger baseball bat, which he joked that Obama could use at news conferences, and a No. 1 jersey. "We got a chance today to cap off a great season with a visit to the White House and meet a president ... that is very much loved," Pitino said.