COLUMBIA, S.C. — What started as an effort to raise money for Haiti earthquake relief led to the University of Kentucky basketball team being thanked via telephone by President Barack Obama on Tuesday.
And it was clear the nation's No. 1 ranking basketball fan knows the nation's top-ranked team well.
Obama and the Wildcats participated in the phone call in Columbia, where UK played South Carolina on Tuesday night. The call was to thank the team for raising more than $1.3 million through its Hoops for Haiti telethon last week.
"I think this is just a great testament to each of you individually, is a great testament to your program, and is a great testament to Kentucky," Obama said. "It shows a lot of character. Some of you are going to be going on to the NBA. Some of you are going to be doing other things in your lives. I hope that spirit of doing for others continues."
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The call came a little after 1:30 p.m. to a phone in the media room at Colonial Life Arena. Coach John Calipari sat at the table with junior Patrick Patterson next to him. The other players stood next to them.
The phone rang. Calipari looked around then pushed the button.
A cheerful voice on the other end of the line said: "Hi, it's Katie Duncan calling for President Obama."
Calipari hesitated a second, then smiled and said, "OK?"
The room laughed.
After about 30 seconds, a familiar voice came on the line.
"Well, man, I am honored to speak to the No. 1 team in the country, a few days after it happened," Obama said.
Calipari thanked Obama for the call, mentioning the importance of the Hoops for Haiti program. Then he told the president he had a few players who wanted to speak to him. First was Patterson.
"Hey, Patrick!" Obama said.
Patterson thanked the president "on behalf of the team for what you're doing for the whole country." He said how much the Hoops for Haiti program meant and added how much Obama's leadership inspired them. Obama thanked Patterson in return.
At that point, Calipari jumped back in and said freshman John Wall wanted to speak.
"Hey! What's going on All-Star!" Obama said. "I've been watching you."
More laughter from the room, eliciting a sheepish grin from Wall.
Wall then invited Obama to a game in Lexington, and "maybe a game of H-O-R-S-E."
Obama was ready:
"I'm not gonna play H-O-R-S-E with you. I don't want to lose, and then you'll have bragging rights for a long time. But what we might do is have a little scrimmage. And I'm gonna make sure that you're on my team. If you're on my team, and Patterson ... I'm gonna book it up so I've got a chance."
Finally, freshman DeMarcus Cousins told Obama he hoped to see him at the end of the season.
"You know, the way you guys are going, that may happen," Obama said, referring to a potential championship visit to the White House.
Then the president turned serious.
"Obviously, everybody admires the great team you have," he said. "Everybody admires the dedication on the court, the athleticism on the court. It's just fun to watch you guys. But the main reason I'm calling is for you in the middle of the season to take the time to do something like this for people that you don't know."
Then Obama put U.S. Rep. Ben Chandler, D-Versailles, on the phone, offering up similar congratulations. But Obama couldn't resist just a little more basketball talk, asking who the Wildcats played next. Calipari answered that they were on the road at South Carolina.
"All right, well I think you should be all right," he said. (He was wrong. About 10 hours later, South Carolina handed UK its first defeat.)
Calipari winced, while there was more laughter in the room. The president went on.
"But there is that tendency once you get to be No. 1 to start to let down a little bit. And it is a tough place to play. So you guys stay focused. I expect to see you guys in the championship game at some point. And again, congratulations on the great work you guys did."
Obama said goodbye, and Calipari and the players exhaled.
A few minutes later, the team was still absorbing the moment. As he walked offstage, Calipari said he was more nervous during the call than during a timeout. Wall said he was "still nervous."
"Extremely inspiring," Patterson said. "Not only does he know us on the basketball court, but obviously he knows us off the basketball court for what we did for the people of Haiti. It feels extremely good to know that he admires us and also that he respects us."