The White House invite came out of nowhere, just a few days before the annual event in which the President of the United States welcomes the NBA Champions to the White House. Time was short, so I immediately sent my RSVP and awaited the go-ahead . A day later, I passed the background check (I wonder if they tried to find my old MySpace account?) and it was confirmed. Just like that, I suddenly had to prepare for the trip and get ready for a once-in-a-lifetime event.
What made the event special was the fact that not only was President Barack Obama honoring the Miami Heat for their 2012 NBA Championship, but also commending them for their ongoing support for those who serve in the military and their families. In addition to the White House event, the Heat team would also visit the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. After losing to the Boston Celtics in double overtime (which I managed to check into my hotel in time to see LeBron's clutch three to tie the game in regulation), the Heat also scheduled a practice at Georgetown University Tuesday before flying to Brooklyn to face the Nets on Wednesday.
Having never been to Washington DC, it was exciting enough being able to finally see the White House in person, let alone be able to go inside for such a special event. Luckily, the SB Nation office was just a few blocks away from Obama's pad and the good folks over there who keep the network running on a daily basis were more than happy to give me shelter and a place to prep. It was a good thing too, since the weather wasn't exactly inviting for an stroll around the city, with freezing rain that had started up in the morning and temperatures in the lower 30s that were bone chilling for a Miamian like me.
Wasting no time, the White House was easy enough to find and the entrance to the security hut even easier to locate. A few members of the media were making a line so that each could get buzzed inside and get their passes. The building and premises were immaculate and yet understated, with little in the way of obvious signs of security. The actual front of the White House and the property surrounding it appeared much different than I had imagined, possibly with the grey and hazy background from this dreary weather making the structure look much smaller than I thought it would be.
After getting through security, a White House aide escorted us to a door to the right side that lead to a very cramped hallway, cubicles, a tiny kitchen and eventually a very crowded James S. Brady Press Briefing Room in the West Wing. This is also a room that felt significantly tinier than what it looked like on television or in photos, not unlike visiting the set of a TV game show. With almost an hour to go before the actual event was to take place in the East Room, most of the Heat beat writers and media members joined the usual crowd taking in a midday Press Briefing by Press Secretary Jay Carney about the President's foreign policy agenda and whether there any photos of Obama skeet shooting at Camp David.
During the Q&A with the press, we got word we would soon be able to enter the East Room so the cattle herd reversed course to go out the same doors we came in and into a holding pen to await further instructions. We were eventually led through the main front entrance of the White House, where the United States Marine Band entertained by playing a selection of appropriate music for the event, including Gloria Estefan and the Miami Sound Machine's classic tune "Conga", among others.
Inside the massive East Room sat members of the Heat family, staff and their loved ones, with the players' wives and girlfriends sitting in the front row along with Micky Arison's wife Madeleine, Florida Congresswomen Frederica Wilson and Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Heat broadcasters Eric Reid, Tony Fiorentino (taking pictures during the event with a full-sized iPad), José Pañeda and even the legend Dr. Jack Ramsay were seated behind them in the middle. (No, I didn't see Ed Pinckney in the crowd.) Eventually, new members of the Heat that were not part of the championship trickled in to to take their seats. Chris "Birdman" Andersen, participating in not just the Battioke charity event but now a White House visit during one 10-day contract, sat in the middle of Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis.
The Miami Heat players, along with coaches and Arison, arrived to take their place on the short stage assembled in the far side of the room after spending about 10 minutes with the President before the press event. Notably absent was Pat Riley, who was back home in South Florida with what the team only described as the flu. Former Heat players Terrel Harris, Eddy Curry, and Ronny Turiaf were also not present. The President followed shortly afterwards and it was finally underway.
"Everybody doing their part, is what finally put the Heat over the top," Obama remarked. "In 2011, the Heat got all the way to the Finals only to come up short. But when you fall, the real test is whether you can ignore the naysayers, pick yourself up and come back stronger. That's true in basketball, but it's also true in life. That's exactly what these guys did."
President Obama praised the "little up-and-coming basketball team" not just for their performance on the court but off of it, citing their work with veterans and also the roles as fathers of some of the players such as Dwyane Wade and LeBron James.
"One of the things I'm proudest of is that they take their roles as fathers seriously. And for all the young men out there who are looking up to them all the time, for them to see somebody who cares about their kids and is there for them day in and day out, that's a good message to send. It's a positive message to send, and we're very proud of them for that."
The media weren't allowed inside the gym when the President summoned some of the NBA's finest to play some ball on his birthday in front of wounded veterans at Fort McNair. Wade was invited as well as LeBron and future Heat teammate Shane Battier, and Obama referenced that game in jokingly declaring himself on Monday responsible for preparing the team to finally reach the top of the mountain and accomplish the dream of winning the ring after falling so tantalizingly close in 2011.
"Now, I'm not trying to take all the credit, Coach, but I think that it's clear that going up against me prepared them to take on Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. It sharpened their skills. It gave them the competitive edge that they needed. And I think part of the reason they came back today is they want another shot at the old guy."
Despite the brief 8-minute duration, Obama took the time to tease Mike Miller while praising him for his NBA Finals performance despite "because he could not walk", rightfully called Juwan Howard "Grandpa" and didn't spare the Heat's starting point guard.
"Mario Chalmers earned himself a nickname from Dwayne Wade that I'm not allowed to repeat," he said to the delight of everyone (well, maybe not Mario). "But he did a great job."
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra had a quick message when he took a turn at the podium.
"We actually hope that this team serves as an inspiration to the nation of what a group can do when you come together and sacrifice your egos for a greater goal; to come together with a real hard-hat work ethic, and to be able to persevere through adversity and a whole heck of a lot of criticism and still be able to accomplish the ultimate dream."
Speaking of fulfilling dreams, LeBron James had the biggest laughs when he stepped up to speak.
"On behalf of myself and my teammates, we just want to thank you -- to piggyback what Spo said -- for the hospitality, for allowing us to be, I mean, in the White House. I mean, we're in the White House. And Coach said -- and the Prez said this real casual. So I mean, we're kids from Chicago and Dallas, Texas and Michigan and Ohio and South Dakota...and Miami. And we're in the White House right now. This is like, hey, mama, I made it."
Soon, Wade's open recruiting for Obama to be his new point guard on a 10-day contract got the last laughs and the event came to its conclusion. We were quickly ushered out of the premises, not before taking some last pictures at the entrance and it was back outside to the chilly weather, soon to be joined by a large group of Japanese tourists snapping pictures of each other in front of the gates.
In the second week of Obama's second term, the Miami Heat have a strong chance of returning during his administration. Hopefully I can be there again to cover it, and let's pray there's an outdoor court assembled for the next one.