It is a tradition born over a century ago, first welcoming baseball's earliest champions. Over time, it was an honor extended beyond our national pastime toward other winning teams, both professional and amateur alike. It is unusual in that it can be both meaningful yet meaningless, a superficial gesture that has been rejected by some while embraced by others.
On Tuesday, for the third time in seven years, the Miami Heat will visit the White House to commemorate their most recent championship.
The visit is perfectly scheduled, nestled in a five-day break between games as the Heat prepares to face the Washington Wizards on Wednesday. The third of six games away from home, the road trip has started off without a GPS and two flat tires.
Moreover, coming off back-to-back losses for the third time this season, the timing seems inappropriate. Undeserved, maybe.
This season is less than half finished and so far it has been an inconsistent one for the champs. They overcame early struggles and, as head coach Erik Spoelstra has said (too) often, "found their identity." Blowing out opponents and playing the kind of defense that brought three titles to Miami with a roster deeper and arguably better than ever.
But, like a Target customer over the holidays, that identity was stolen and the Heat have lost four games out of their last nine, an alarming trend. And they've done it by displaying the kind of attitude that won't just keep them from a third consecutive championship. The arrogant indifference that has resulted in too-tight victories and demoralizing losses to inferior teams could potentially lead to an early exit from the playoffs.
It sounds ludicrous to think, even laughable to write. But upsets happen, stronger teams that should have won it all are left wondering why as Cinderella teams find their glass slippers in the shape of a trophy.
The Heat have borne a target on their heads for over three seasons and, unbelievably, the bulls-eye has gotten even bigger. Injuries have weakened Miami's stranglehold on the rest of the league but selfish offense and nonexistent defense has loosened that grip completely.
The team has lost its' focus yet again. And, unlike last season, no imminent roster change seems likely to help them see their path to a championship more clearly. What is clear to everyone but the players is that something is needed.
Like LeBron James, I also see myself as a student of the game. I've seen the better team lose, like in 2011 to the Dallas Mavericks. Or in 1999, when an Allan Houston jumpshot bounce-bounce-bounced Miami out of the playoffs. And one thing every champion has needed, in basketball or any sport, has been a reason to continue fighting. To struggle against complacency, against a long, regular season and against - as with this great Miami team - its' sense of smug superiority.
In the meantime, James keeps dunking ferociously to the joy of the Madison Square Garden crowd during losing efforts. Dwyane Wade keeps missing games and Chris Bosh, with a rare form of basketball Alzheimer's, forgets how to drive to the hoop. So Miami keeps losing. And with each loss, their pursuit of the home court advantage, perhaps the single greatest reason for last season's success, slips further away.
This team needs an edge, to perceive slights were none may exist, in order to reignite their championship hope. My hope is that while they walk the hallowed halls of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, they are reminded of last year's cohesive pursuit. That while the President makes jokes (what's the over/under on his comparing Ray Allen's Game 6 winning shot to help save the Affordable Care Act?), the Heat put aside courtesy and joviality and remember how close they were to losing it all.
That as they reminisce about long win streaks and beating evenly-matched teams in the playoffs, they might reclaim the indomitable will to succeed.
As they stand at the podium, privileged to stand next to the leader of the free world, they might realize that it could be Kevin Durant or Tim Duncan or worse, David West, who hands the President a commemorative jersey.
The visit to the White House has been a long tradition, one that might seem anachronistic and unimportant. But for Miami, it could be the reminder that every game, whether against the Wizards or a Game 7 opponent in the Finals, is crucial.
And with any luck, that memory might require finding some time during next year's long season to schedule a return visit.
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