Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker gathered around President Barack Obama to present him with gifts during their team visit to the White House. Obama glanced at the white San Antonio Spurs No. 1 jersey with “POTUS” on the back and the autographed basketball, but he was more mesmerized by the shiny Larry O’Brien trophy on the table.
“Do I get to keep this?” Obama joked about the Spurs’ fifth championship trophy.
The president had just spent nearly 10 minutes praising the Spurs for their charitable efforts away from basketball and their selfless style of play, calling it “a great metaphor for what America should be all about.” But there certainly are limitations to what San Antonio is willing to share, so Obama had to settle for the jersey and the ball.
After a seven-year drought between titles, the Spurs are more appreciative of the spoils that come from winning and took a momentary break from their quest to repeat to accept some recognition from the commander-in-chief on their redemptive title run.
“It sinks in a little bit more,” Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said. “When the President of the United States enjoys watching that team and compliments those players for what they do, on and off the court, it’s recognition that sticks in their mind. It makes them feel like they’ve done something that matters. So it’s a big motivator and when it comes from somebody like the president who not just understands the game, but he feels what they’ve done is important off the court and they take pride in that.”
The Spurs have been relevant for so long that Popovich and Tim Duncan have been able to celebrate championship wins with three two-term presidents. But the duo hadn’t visited the East Room of the White House or the lawn for a celebration since 2003, when Duncan, Parker and Ginobili won their first of four titles together and were welcomed by President George Bush.
“I was too new to be able to enjoy it as much as this time,” Ginobili said.
Obama acknowledged how much perceptions of the Spurs have changed during his nearly six years in office. “Let’s face it, a little while back, people were saying the Spurs were past their prime. Not just old, but kind of boring,” Obama said. “Now they’re fresh and exciting — which is basically the exact opposite of what happens to presidents.”
The Spurs weren’t the first NBA team to visit the White House this season, or this month, with Obama’s beloved Chicago Bulls stopping by Thursday for a tour. During his time in office, Obama has also greeted the champion Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks and Miami Heat.
“It’s never easy celebrating a non-Bulls team in the White House. That’s all I’ve been able to do so far,” Obama said. “But even I have to admit, the Spurs are hard to dislike. First of all, they’re old. And for an old guy, it makes me feel good to see, you know, where’s Tim?”
Obama then turned from the dais to acknowledge Duncan and his gray hairs before stating, “There is a reason why the uniform is black and silver … It makes me feel good to see that folks in advancing years can succeed in a young man’s sport.”
Duncan wore a navy sport coat and slacks for his third White House visit, a sharper look from the baggy, all-black casual walking suit that he donned when meeting Bush. But staying true to his reputation for eschewing fashion, Duncan was the only Spur who didn’t wear a tie. No one could convince him to change his look for the president?
“I didn’t even try. It’s not his style. A tie is not his thing,” said a smiling Ginobili, who was easily the sharpest-dressed player in a three-piece suit after wearing a collared shirt and slacks for the visit with Bush.
Obama didn’t seem to have a problem with Duncan’s wardrobe. He was too busy crediting the Spurs for bouncing back from their difficult loss to Miami in the 2013 NBA Finals and taking the lead in areas of diversity, including the hiring of former WNBA star Becky Hammon as an assistant coach. The Spurs brought the most international NBA championship roster to the White House – nine of the 15 players from last season’s title team were born outside of the mainland United States – and Obama called them the United Nations “of basketball teams and it shows the way this wonderful sport has become an international sport.”
Obama joked several times about Popovich’s tendency to rest his star players to save them for the postseason — his opening line was, “I was thinking about sending the Vice President to this event so I could stay fresh for the State of the Union.” — and also his terse, one-word answers to sideline reporters.
“He knows who we are,” Popovich said. “It was very flattering to hear him say those things. We aren’t big camera people, beat your chest kind of people, kind of do it under the radar a little bit, like he said, ‘Kind of boring.’ But we think we do things in a selfless way – or at least we try to – do your job and go home. That’s basically the deal. Go win a game, go lose a game and then you go home. What we do is entertainment and real life is everything else around basketball. [There are] a lot of things going on in the world, much more important than what we do, but we realize that.”
Obama also realizes the one glaring hole in the Spurs’ 15-year run and closed his remarks by boldly stating, “If you guys need any tips on winning back to back, you know where to find me.”