WASHINGTON, D.C. – The UConn men’s basketball team filed into the East Room of The White House to a standing ovation and lined up on the two risers in the center of the elegant space.
Once they were situated, “Hail to the Chief” reverberated through the room and out came President Joe Biden with UConn head coach Dan Hurley, guest of honor, tailing close behind.
“(UConn is) one of the premier programs in the country and that’s not hyperbole, it’s a fact,” the President began. “You started this year unranked and then you went on to win 14 in a row. And then, just to keep everybody’s interest, you lost six of the next eight games.”
Every member of the national championship team was there to be recognized, one final hoorah for the group before some go their separate ways. They stood mesmerized by the elegant glass chandeliers, gold curtains and paintings of George Washington and others. Most were smiling hard through the entire 15-minute ceremony.
“You did it all as a team and the whole country could see it,” Biden said. “When three players fast through the Final Four because it falls during the holy month of Ramadan, the country sees that you made a commitment to something bigger than yourself. And when another star player scored 16 points after being sick all night with food poisoning – he’s nuts, I don’t know how you do that – now it gets the sense of what it means to dig deep and show up for others.”
Biden, of course, was referring to Jordan Hawkins’ battle with calamari, or whatever it was that made him sick. Laughter took over the room once again.
“I am a little bit nuts,” Hawkins told reporters outside the White House following the ceremony. “But you have to be a little bit nuts to play for Coach Hurley.”
Hawkins grew up in Gaithersburg, Maryland, and attended high school nearby at Dematha Catholic. He had spent plenty of time in D.C. growing up, looking at monuments and driving past the White House, but he never imagined he’d ever make it inside.
“That never came across my mind,” Hawkins said. “I used to practice in D.C. every day, so seeing it every day – being inside the White House just feels totally different.”
Alex Karaban, set to be one of the leaders of the 2023-24 Huskies, didn’t feel like the moment was real until the music started playing and President Biden made his entrance alongside Hurley.
“You see the President everywhere – you see him in interviews and videos and all of that stuff – but seeing him eye-to-eye was something I never thought would happen.”
Once Biden finished his remarks he called Hurley up to the podium: “I always would really dread speaking after Geno Auriemma – this is a whole ‘nother level of fear right here. So I’m gonna stick to my script,” the fifth year UConn head coach said, celebrating his first national championship.
“It’s such an honor to meet you, President Biden. So thank you for having us here. And it’s an honor that you truly gotta earn. To earn one of the greatest honors in sports, you’ve got to work and obviously you never forget it, but you earn it through having tremendous culture and brotherhood, which we work every day to develop as a program.
“Obviously, this team’s abilities on the court were unmatched in terms of anywhere in the country – this was truly the elite team in college basketball. And we had the greatest leadership in terms of what we got from our older players in Andre Jackson and Adama Sanogo […] January was a rough month, but the leadership of those two men really got us through a really difficult time and this becomes one of the greatest teams in UConn’s storied basketball history. This team right here. Couldn’t be prouder.”
Just before the ceremony concluded, Hurley called on the first two UConn captains he ever named in Jackson and Sanogo to present President Biden with his No. 46 UConn throwback jersey, the one that became the team’s main attire as it continued to win. Biden and Sanogo shared a moment as he came off the stage while Hurley, still at the podium, told the President, “You don’t want him posting you up,” and earned the loudest roar of laughter from the room.
“Coach, you had an unwavering belief in this team, and it was clear, and it made a difference,” President Biden said. “This team has proven that there’s no quit in UConn, just like there’s no quit in America. None. There’s nothing we can’t do when we believe we can do it if we do it together and that’s exactly what you all did. That’s what sports in this country is all about: possibilities.”