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Wednesday, June 7, 2023

White House visit an unforgettable ending for UConn men’s historic run

WASHINGTON — For Jordan Hawkins, it was the moment when the president turned to him and started joking about playing a family game of one-on-one, and marveling about his performance in the Final Four after being awake all night with stomach troubles.

“When Joe Biden kind of like, singled me out, I was like, ‘Oh (wow),’ ” Hawkins said. “That was pretty cool. I didn’t expect that at all. Definitely going to tell my grandkids about that.”

Andre Jackson walked through the hallways with his UConn teammates, in awe of the great paintings of presidents and first ladies.

“My favorite part was the artwork,” Jackson said. “All the people I learned about in history class, just being in there and seeing the original paintings.”

The national champions finally lined up on risers in the East Room of the White House, between the paintings of George and Martha Washington, as President Joe Biden, 80, taking a Friday afternoon respite from the troubles of the nation and the world, listed their achievements and heaped praise on them.

“One of the premier programs in the country,” Biden said. “And that’s not hyperbole, that’s a fact. … You started the year unranked, and then you went 14-0. Then just to keep everyone’s interest, you lost six out of eight games. But you’ve got a coach who decided that didn’t matter, and, hell, he knows something about how to win. And you bounced back with a resounding 15-2 run.”

All of these achievements, which culminated with wins over Miami and San Diego State at the Final Four in Houston, the last of six consecutive double-digit victories in the NCAA Tournament, will be recounted at future reunions. Five years, 10 years, 25, 50.

This ceremony, one of those spoils Andrew Jackson said belong to such a victor, marks the end, the last of the long series of exclamation points.

“We don’t know a lot of other people we could ask what it’s like,” Hurley said. “Because no one comes here, it’s such a special experience. For us, it’s closure to what the team accomplished last year. I feel like this was the perfect ending to a magical season.”

It is best practice for champions to savor these moments, for no matter how strong a program is, even if this is championship No. 5, or how exciting the recruiting class, there is no guarantee these things will come again. The motorcade home to campus, the parade in Hartford, throwing out first pitches at major league games, clanging the opening bell on Wall Street, all of it. The  UConn men earned all of it. About all that’s left is an appearance at Fenway Park.

After the 15-minute ceremony, Biden boarded his helicopter for Camp David, and the Huskies, heading to their plane, will be going their separate ways, too. Hawkins and Adama Sanogo are heading to the NBA Draft, Jackson is likely to follow them. Tristen Newton has yet to commit himself. The incoming freshman class, rated one of the best in the country, arrives on campus next week.

“Some of our players are going through the draft process,” freshman Alex Karaban said. “For them to come back for this, it really did feel like the end. We’re going to miss them all, hopefully we’ll get together in the future sometime, but this really does feel like the end.”

Earlier in the day, the president joked with Hawkins’ cousin, Angel Reese, when she was in the East Room with her team, the women’s national champs from LSU, telling her he’d bet on her in a one-on-one with the UConn star.

Dom Amore: Dan Hurley did it his way, and for UConn men, national champs, there was no other

He also kidded with the young children in the audience and ribbed Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who was injured in a mishap at the parade.

“He was so great with our players,” Hurley said. “He put us at ease. He was so relatable. We had a great experience talking to him. Cool guy.”

Hurley had a little more fun with the post-championship incident in which Biden called, and the coach didn’t pick up the phone. “I came clean, I’ve told different stories there, but I was talking to my wife,” Hurley said.

“When he walked into the room,” Karaban said, “you see the president everywhere, see him on videos, being interviewed, but to actually see him eye-to-eye was something I never thought would happen.”

National Champion UConn men’s basketball team to make fifth White House visit Friday

Hawkins never guessed, for instance, that the lemonade served at the White House was as good as it was. Even the lemonade tastes better when you’re toasting a championship with the president of the United States.

“It was crazy,” said Hawkins, who grew up in Maryland. “I never thought I’d be in the White House, growing up here, seeing the White House every day, but being inside of it is totally different.”

It was a day, Hurley told Biden, “we will never forget.” Hurley said all he would have wanted in April was to coach this group a few more games, but it has to end, and the White House is the last stop, the place for turning history’s pages, for saying goodbye to a group a coach would like to hold together forever.

“There will be a bunch of reunions,” Hurley said. “We will always be getting together because of the history we made together.”


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