WASHINGTON, DC – The UConn men’s basketball team entered the White House East Room to a standing ovation and lined up on two platforms in the center of the elegant space.
Once they were busy, “Hail to the Chief” blared through the room and President Joe Biden came out with UConn head coach Dan Hurley, the guest of honor, right behind him.
“(UConn is) one of the top programs in the country and that’s not hyperbole, it’s a fact,” the President began. “You started this year with no ranking and then won 14 in a row. And then, to keep everyone’s attention, you lost six of your next eight games.
Every member of the national championship team was there to be recognized, a final round of applause for the group before some went their separate ways. They stood mesmerized by elegant glass chandeliers, gold curtains, and paintings by George Washington and others. Most were grinning widely throughout the 15-minute ceremony.
“You did it all as a team and the whole country could see it,” Biden said. “When three players make it through the Final Four quickly because it falls during the holy month of Ramadan, the country sees that you’ve committed to something bigger than yourself. And when another star scored 16 after being sick with food poisoning all night – he’s crazy, I don’t know how you do it – now he’s starting to understand what it means to dig deep and show himself to others.
Biden, of course, was referring to Jordan Hawkins’ battle with calamari or whatever made him sick. Laughter once again filled the room.
“I’m a little crazy,” Hawkins told reporters outside the White House after the ceremony. “But you have to be a little crazy to play for Coach Hurley.”
Hawkins grew up in Gaithersburg, Maryland and attended Dematha Catholic High School nearby. Growing up, he spent a lot of time in Washington, seeing the monuments and driving past the White House, but he never imagined he would ever get inside.
“It never occurred to me,” said Hawkins. “I used to practice every day in Washington, so seeing it every day – being in the White House, feels completely different.”
Alex Karaban, who was supposed to be one of the leaders of the 2023-24 Huskies, didn’t feel the moment was real until the music started and President Biden appeared next to Hurley.
“You see the president everywhere – you see him in interviews, movies and so on – but seeing him face to face was something I never thought would happen.”
When Biden finished his remarks, he called Hurley to the podium: “I would always be afraid to speak Geno Auriemma – it’s a whole different level of fear here. So I’m going to stick to my script,” UConn’s fifth-year head coach said as he celebrated his first national championship.
“It’s a great honor to meet you, President Biden. So thank you for having us here. It’s an honor that really needs to be earned. To earn one of the greatest honors in the sport you have to work, and of course you never forget that, but you earn it through the great culture and brotherhood we work on every day as a program.
“Obviously, this team’s on-court skills were unparalleled anywhere in the country – it was a truly elite college basketball team. And we had the greatest leadership in terms of what we got from our senior players Andre Jackson and Adam Sanogo (…) January was a tough month but the leadership of these two men really helped us get through a really tough time and this is becoming one of the greatest teams in UConn basketball history. This team here. He couldn’t be more proud.
Just before the ceremony ended, Hurley called on the first two UConn captains he ever named Jackson and Sanogo to present President Biden with his number 46 UConn jersey, which became the team’s main uniform as they continued to win. Biden and Sanogo shared a moment together as he walked offstage while Hurley, still on the podium, told the president, “You don’t want him to put you in,” and drew the loudest roar of laughter in the hall.
“Coach, you had unwavering faith in this team and that was clear, and that made a difference,” President Biden said. “This team has proven that there are no resignations at UConn just like there are no resignations in America. Nothing. There’s nothing we can’t do if we believe we can do it if we do it together and that’s exactly what you did. That’s what sport is all about in this country: opportunity.”