WASHINGTON (WDRB) -- For the University of Louisville basketball team, the traditional trip to the White House for the NCAA men's basketball champions closed the book on a season they will never forget.
Coach Rick Pitino said the visit capped off the season, and players agreed after meeting President Barack Obama on July 23.
The Cardinals arrived at the White House after a charter flight to Washington about noon Tuesday. They slogged through Beltway traffic and made their way through White House security. After that, they were taken on a mini-tour of the nation's executive mansion. Full tours are no longer are available because of the Congressional sequester action, but the Cards saw several main floor rooms, caught a glimpse of the nation's first dog, and took pictures in historic hallways.
The players had been briefed for the trip.
"We actually had a meeting yesterday telling the guys how to address the president and the first lady, if she were to grace us," Pitino said. "And we just told them everything that was about to happen. I told them, you're getting ready to meet the leader of the free world, and they were just in awe."
The Cardinals met the president shortly before a public ceremony in the East Room of the White House.
"We didn't actually see him walk in, because we were in a long line," senior Luke Hancock said. "I think it kind of shortened everybody's breath for a second when you realize he's in the room. That's the president, right there."
The U of L players, however, weren't the only ones with a scouting report. Obama worked his way through prepared remarks about the Cardinals with the deftness you expect of a politician, though his ad-libs were entertaining.
He congratulated Pitino on his team's resilience, and on keeping his word to his players by following through on a promise to get a postseason tattoo.
"We're not going to ask coach to show it here," Obama said. "You didn't chicken out. You kept your word. And in return you got something that will stay with you forever -- a shirtless picture on the Internet. That will never be erased."
Pitino said he wasn't surprised that the president had such a good handle on his team, because when they spoke on the phone a couple of days after the championship game, Obama kept Pitino far longer than he expected on the phone.
"When I spoke to the president I was trying to be polite and let him go," Pitino said. "And I was afraid -- he knew so much about basketball -- he was going to get into why didn't I put a guy on the basketball against Christian Laettner. He knows the game of basketball. We were talking about things that happened in the game that a typical fan would not notice or see, and he was on top of it. He watches the game, and he didn't need notes."
The first player on U of L's team to get a shout-out from the president was Tim Henderson. Obama mentioned his back-to-back three-pointers against Wichita State, then encouraged the crowd to respond.
"That's something else," Henderson said afterward. "It's a moment you know you'll never forget."
Then Obama worked his way through U of L's championship win. Hancock got a couple of mentions. Gorgui Dieng and Peyton Siva, as well.
"Gorgui Dieng, by the way, I visited Senegal and everybody was very excited about Gorgui Dieng," Obama said. "Peyton Siva, both Gorgui and Peyton were taken in the NBA Draft. . . . Luke earned a spot on Team USA, serving as flag bearer. Russ Smith was a third-team All-American, and even though he couldn't be here we're all excited to see what Russdiculous has in store."
"And then there's Kevin Ware," Obama continued. "I told him to say Hi to his mom, because moms don't like seeing their kids get hurt. All of us remember the terrible injury that Kevin suffered. But what we also remember is the love that his teammates showed for him, that he was on crutches a day later. A week later he was cutting down the nets in Atlanta. And he's standing here with us today, working out with the team and hoping to be back in time for fall practice. That's the kind of resilience and strong spirit this team has had. They didn't just show it on the court, they showed it in the classroom. As a team, the Cardinals earned just under a 3.3 GPA."
Around the crowd were various supporters, political and academic. Kentucky's U.S. Senators Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul were in the crowd, as was Rep. John Yarmuth. Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway attended, as did Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer and newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to Britain Matthew Barzun, a Louisville native. After the visit to the White House, U of L's group toured the Capitol as guests of McConnell.
After the ceremony with the president, in a room off the White House's East portico, Hancock gave his impressions. After all the talk about giving Obama a hard time about not picking them in the tournament, Hancock said not a single Cardinal mentioned it when the commander-in-chief entered the room.
"I guess Russ wasn't here to mention it," Hancock said.
The president himself did. He opened his remarks by commending the Cardinals for their single-minded determination "to ruin my bracket."
Hancock said hearing his name mentioned was a highlight.
"The little shout-out I got was pretty cool," Hancock said. "For him to know my name is pretty exciting, and to know that much about every guy on our team was pretty good. He talked to guys like he knew them from way back. It was great to hear him mention Tim. It was hilarious to hear him say Russdiculous."
When Obama turned to Pitino, he rolled through the list of accomplishments. First coach to win a title with two different programs. "We won't name the other one," Obama said.
He mentioned Richard Pitino being hired at Minnesota, and Pitino's election to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. He even mentioned Pitino's horse, "I think I actually lost money on that horse," Obama said.
Obama praised the team for its character and service, and noted the Cards met with soldiers from the Wounded Warrior program before the White House event.
"Congratulations on your amazing leadership. You're a great teacher," Obama told Pitino. "And from what I've seen of the preseason polls, you might be back here."
Pitino presented Obama with a personalized red and black Louisville Slugger bat. He gave Obama a U of L jersey with the No. 1 and "Obama" on the back.
After the ceremony, Pitino said the trip sums up the team's championship run, and marks the point when the team will turn its thoughts toward trying to make another one.
"Sometimes things don't go according to plan," Pitino said. "But we planned this from day one. It was our goal. We altered our goals along the way, had to get our confidence back after a three-game losing streak, and we got it. But the most amazing thing to me was to see the leader of the free world call out a walk-on from Christian Academy. It's amazing when you think about it. If he's not on the team, that moment doesn't happen for us. . . . I'm just proud of the way these guys played together and what they stand for. This team is a perfect example of what a team is all about. They suffered together, they cried together. Everything you heard in Jimmy V's speech, is represented on this basketball team. They did their best on the court, they did their best off the court. . . . This is a tremendous capping off of our season."