By Annika McGinnis, McClatchy Newspapers (July 18, 2012)
WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Wednesday thanked the Baylor University women’s basketball team for helping him get it right – at least in the realm of NCAA basketball.
“I want to thank all the outstanding young women who are behind me, and the coach, for making my bracket look good – at least on the women’s side,” Obama joked. The president had correctly picked the Texas team to beat Notre Dame in the NCAA championship game.
“He’s the smartest president we’ve had,” said Lady Bears coach Kim Mulkey.
In the East Room of the White House, Obama congratulated the team for its 40-0 record as well as its academic and extracurricular successes. Some players had perfect GPAs, he said. They read for students at Waco elementary schools, worked at homeless shelters, built houses in Kenya and worked at an AIDS orphanage.
They are, he said, a “terrific example for girls everywhere.”
The Lady Bears broke the NCAA record – men’s and women’s – for the most wins in a single season. Their success comes 40 years after the passage of Title IX, which gave women and girls equal opportunities to play sports.
“As the father of two daughters who are tall and beautiful just like them, it is great to have role models who can show that women can be strong and athletic and competitive, but also play as a team,” Obama said.
Obama gave special recognition to the team’s star player, the Associated Press player of the year, 6-foot-8 Brittney Griner.
“This young woman is the new face of women’s basketball. She blocks shots, she rebounds, she’s got the jump hook, she’s got the dunk,” Obama said. Griner, along with the other team members, met the president individually before his speech.
“This means everything,” Griner said in an interview after the ceremony. “This is a once in a lifetime experience, to come to the White House, to meet the president, to shake his hand. It was amazing.”
Forward Destiny Williams agreed.
“He’s taller than I expected, though, unless his ears give him a couple inches,” Williams said.
Williams said the team achieved its success primarily through relentless hard work, although she said the players were having “so much fun” that they “weren’t really keeping up with the wins.”
Obama said Mulkey, AP’s coach of the year, is the first in the history of college basketball to win titles in three roles: player, assistant coach and head coach. Mulkey won two as a player and one as an assistant coach at Louisiana Tech, and now two as Baylor’s head coach.
“I heard she plans to win her next one as mascot,” Obama said to laughter.
The president has a long personal history with basketball. In “Barack Obama: The Story,” author David Maraniss wrote that basketball is “central to his self identity.” He’s played basketball recreationally throughout his life and now helps coach his daughter Sasha’s team.
Griner, a rising senior, said she definitely wants to come back to the White House next year. With her and the other four starters returning, Obama’s betting on them again.
“I suspect that they’re the odds-on favorite for my bracket next year as well,” he said.