WASHINGTON, D.C. — It was the first thing on their minds after they won the national championship.
“This team, when they won that championship on that court, they were jumping up and down, not saying , ‘We did it, we won!’ They were saying, ‘We’re going to the White House,’ ” John Calipari said Friday just moments after President Barack Obama congratulated his team on a national championship.
But Friday’s visit to the White House was also likely the last thing the 2012 national champions will do together as a team.
“It’s exciting and sad at the same time just because it is going to be one of the last things we do together,” sophomore forward Terrence Jones said. “I’m not trying to think about that right now though. I’m trying to think about this being a great memory.”
It was a memory they’ll never forget.
The Kentucky Wildcats, just over a month removed from winning the program’s eighth national championship, visited the White House on Friday to meet Obama and receive some executive congratulations.
Speaking with the 2011-12 national champions to his back, a packed East Room full of Wildcat fans and alumni to his front, and a national audience watching online and on ESPNU, Obama congratulated the Wildcats while admitting a lapse in judgment in not picking UK to win the title.
“This was the fourth year that I’ve filled out my bracket on ESPN,” Obama said. “And what I’ve learned is that if I make the right picks, I look like a genius. And if things go the other way, a team like Kentucky gets to come to my house and remind me that I was wrong. It’s sort of a double-edged sword.”
Obama picked North Carolina to win, but ultimately, as Obama said Friday, “sometimes talent trumps experience.”
“Keep in mind, this time last year, three of the Wildcats’ five starters were still in high school,” Obama said. “Michael Kidd-Gilchrist couldn’t even vote yet.”
And yet there Kidd-Gilchrist was, not even 20 feet behind Obama, smiling from ear to ear. The Cats, touring the White House for winning the national championship, soaked in every moment of an opportunity they may never get again.
“I never thought I’d have an opportunity to do something like that,” senior guard Darius Miller said. “Being able to do that was a special feeling.”
Miller had the honor of giving the president a jersey bearing his number. Fellow senior Eloy Vargas presented Obama a signed ball from the team by firing a chest pass at the president (it may be the first and only time someone throws something that hard at the president without getting taken down by a Secret Service member), while Anthony Davis awarded Obama with a national championship ring, the first one made.
“Everybody doesn’t get a chance to come to the White House to meet the president,” Davis said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, especially being from Chicago and him being from Chicago. It was like an added bonus.”
Davis, like the rest of the players, was in awe of the history of the White House and the presence of the president. During their 30-minute tour through the bowels of the most important residence in the country, the players took pictures, asked questions and waited to meet one of their heroes.
For one day at least, they weren’t the stars of the show. At least, they didn’t feel like it.
“Everybody felt like he was the man and wanted pictures with him,” Davis said. “It was the one time we weren’t in the spotlight. It was cool for us.”
As Obama gushed about the Cats’ unselfishness, cohesiveness and ability to overcome inexperience, Obama singled out Davis for his talent to affect the game without scoring a point.
“They did it as a team, and nobody, I think, was better at that than Anthony Davis,” Obama said.
Davis has been showered with accolades and awards, trophies and honors, but the presidential compliments were in a different league for the soon-to-be No. 1 pick in the NBA Draft.
“It brought a smile to my face,” Davis said. “Everybody was looking at me and I couldn’t’ stop smiling. For someone like the president of the United States to talk about you, it was great and humbling.”
It also meant a little more to Davis because of their similarities. Obama’s meteoric rise from a senator started in Chicago, and Davis grew eight inches in the matter of a year at a small charter school in the Windy City. Obama even joked with Davis that he had grown an inch since arriving at the White House.
When it came time to shake hands with the president, Obama brought Davis in close and gave him a hug.
“It’s just something being from Chicago, you’ve always got to bring it in and don’t do a formal handshake,” Davis said. “You can tell he was from Chicago.”
When the team left the White House and boarded the bus, there was almost a bittersweet feeling in the air. Kidd-Gilchrist stayed behind to get ready for the draft, Sam Malone and Brian Long remained in the Northeast to begin their summer, and the rest of the players boarded the team plane back to Lexington, several of them headed out of town for an extended time as soon as they landed.
Friday was the final day of the school year and Miller and Vargas will graduate Sunday. In all likelihood, it was the final time the entire team would be together.
“We’ve done so much together all year and just had so much success together,” Jones said. “To end it on this note has been a great experience. Down the road it’s going to be a great memory I have. Just remembering what we did the whole year and having this moment right here is going to be great to have.”
As Calipari left the White House and boarded a separate plane for the Barnstable Brown Party, what had dawned on the rest of the team finally hit him: This was it. The 2011-12 national champions were headed their separate ways.
But by winning together this year, they got to celebrate together one last time, in of all places the White House.
“I’m really going to miss this team,” Calipari said. “What a way to end the season.”