LeBron James approached President Barack Obama at the dais at the East Room of the White House, carrying a basketball autographed by members of the defending champion Miami Heat, then stopped and nervously asked if he could say a few words.
“You can if you want,” Obama told James. “It’s your world, man.”
Unprepared and unscripted, James – a man who should be accustomed to big moments after winning multiple regular season most valuable player awards, an NBA Finals MVP, two Olympic gold medals and the Sports Illustrated Sportsman of the Year – suddenly reverted to being a giddy and overwhelmed little boy.
“I mean, we’re in the White House,” James said, flashing a smile. “Prez said it so casual. We’re kids for Chicago and Dallas, Texas and Michigan and Ohio…”
Forward Mike Miller, standing in the back row shouted, “and South Dakota.”
“And South Dakota, Miami. We’re in the White House right now,” James said, pausing to take a look at the crowd, which included Florida Representatives Debbie Wasserman Schultz and Frederica Wilson, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Education Secretary Arne Duncan and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice. “This is like, hey…mama, I made it.”
Obama recognized the Heat on Monday, jokingly referring to Miami as “a little up-and-coming basketball team” before taking some of the credit for helping the team claiming the 2012 NBA championship. James, Dwyane Wade and Shane Battier all participated in a pickup basketball game at Fort McNair in 2010 and Obama said, “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, gave them the competitive edge that they needed and I think part of the reason they came back is because they wanted another shot at the old guy.”
Championship teams generally visit the visit the White House before taking on the Wizards, but conflicting schedules prohibited the Heat from stopping by when it lost, 105-101, at Verizon Center on Dec. 4. Miami took a detour from its trip from Boston and Brooklyn to once again bask in their five-game victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder. Heat President Pat Riley was back in Miami with what the team said was the flu.
“This team traveled a long road to get to where they are,” Obama said. “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 comeback strong. That’s true in basketball and that’s true in life. That’s exactly what these guys did. Instead of getting down, they got better.”
Obama added, “That team mentality, with everybody doing their part, was what finally put the Heat over the top. Especially impressive when you think about everything they’ve had to deal with over the last few years. This team inspired a lot of passions on both sides and I’m just talking about their dance moves now. We saw that video.”
Obama also acknowledged James for his performance in Game 4 of the NBA Finals, when the fought through cramps to hit a go-ahead three-pointer, and declared his 45-point, 15-rebound outing in the Eastern Conference Finals against Boston as “one of the greatest performances in basketball playoff history” while mentioning the “scary look in his eye.” But he also singled out Miller, who was hobbled for most of the playoffs with injuries but hit seven three-pointers in the championship clinching game.
“Mike, you look better now. You looked broke down,” Obama said as Heat players and owner Micky Arison laughed. “I don’t know how he did it, because he could not walk. He looked like an old man.”
Heat Coach Erik Spoelsta then shook hands with Obama and followed with a few remarks of his own: “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.”
Wade finally presented Obama a Heat jersey with the No. 44.
“All I got to say is: We got a 10-day contract left?” Wade asked. “Pick my man up.”
Obama replied, “You guys could use a shooter.”