- In a surreal day, Barack Obama met with both Donald Trump and LeBron James at the White House. Andrew Sharp chronicles the strange intersection of sports and politics.
WASHINGTON D.C. — Late Thursday afternoon, after the Cavs title ceremony with President Obama was finished, a few dozen reporters waited to hear from players and coaches. When Tyronn Lue emerged and saw the crowd on the north lawn, he broke into a giant grin as he approached. "I feel like I'm the President," he said.
That's how these things are supposed to go. It's a celebration, and there are jokes, and nobody plays it cool.
Lue settled in at his makeshift podium, and the coach spoke about bringing his mother to meet President Obama. He talked about his team joking around with the President and the First Lady, and how much it meant to all of them. There was a question about bringing Obama onto his staff when he finished in office, and Lue joked about holding practice on the outdoor basketball court that Obama had installed when took over in 2008. All of it was everything you'd expect from an NBA champion's trip to the White House.
Then Lue receded, and Cavs GM David Griffin emerged for a few minutes of questions. And then, that was it. A note from the White House had promised LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love were "likely to attend" the press briefing, but none of them came. So everyone else went home.
If you thought yesterday would have been a good opportunity for LeBron James to make a statement about Donald Trump, I did, too. But maybe he didn't know what to say. Or, more likely, the players didn't want to stand in front of the White House and say anything that might put President Obama in an awkward position.
Either way, for all the moments that felt normal and happened right on schedule—every one-liner from Obama, the mannequin challenge with the first lady, the South Lawn selfies—the abrupt and anti-climactic ending was an appropriate finish. It was a strange day at the White House, during an anxious week in America.
I got to the North Lawn at noon, and Donald Trump had arrived an hour earlier to meet with President Obama in the Oval Office. For everyone but a handful of basketball reporters and one basketball team, Thursday at the White House was about the mechanics of Trump taking power.
There were reporters camped outside the White House, some with standalone cameras waiting for live shots, and a handful of others with iPhones, recording Facebook Live segments. Most of them wondered what the President and President-elect might be discussing, and I don’t think any of them even knew the Cavs were currently inside taking a tour. At one point, I walked by a few other reporters wondering how Trump would staff the State Department. "Again, he's an outsider candidate," one said. "The people with PHDs, people who've worked in prior administrations, they might not be coming on board."
As the Oval Office meeting wound down, me and four other journalists crowded around a cell phone outside, watching a live feed of their comments. "Most of all," Obama said, "I want to emphasize to you, Mr. President-elect, that we now are going to want to do everything we can to help you succeed—because if you succeed, then the country succeeds."
"Mr. President," Trump said by his side, "It was a great honor being with you, and I look forward being with you many, many more times."
It was all very cordial, which only made it weirder. We just lived through several years of relentless personal attacks on Obama courtesy of Trump, and several months of urgent calls to oppose him from Obama. Toward the end, when Obama had to stop Trump from taking too many questions, one reporter laughed and said, "That's Obama saying, 'Cool it, relax, you will have plenty of questions to answer.'" Another, seeing them smiling together: "The normalization of Donald Trump begins."
Shortly thereafter, it was time to meet LeBron James and the Cavs on the South Lawn.
The President opened his speech with a joke: "Welcome to the White House, and give it up for the World Champion, Cleveland Cavaliers! That's right, I said "World Champion" and "Cleveland" in the same sentence. That's what we're talking about when we talk about hope and change."
He then welcomed Republican Ohio Governor John Kasich, and moved to Dan Gilbert, and "the pride and joy of Mexico, Missouri, coach Tyronn Lue." He introduced the players one-by-one, including jokes about Kevin Love's panicked defense against Steph Curry, J.R. Smith's shot selection, and Iman Shumpert talents as a Beats By Dre obstetrician. It was great and necessary—after the tense, eerie scenes earlier, we got a perfect mix of genuinely funny and corny jokes to break the tension.
Among the gallery on the lawn, all the players had their own guests. LeBron had his two sons with him, Kevin Love had his girlfriend waiting close by, and Lue's mother was there to go wild when Obama mentioned Mexico, Missouri. Players cracked up throughout Obama’s monologue, and then posed for dozens of pictures as Obama finished his remarks. Speaking of the end, you should really watch this clip to see how amazed Iman Shumpert was by the mobile podium as they gathered for a team photo. That clip is what White House trips are all about. Meanwhile, beat writers took photos of each other in front of the White House. I got to try on a championship ring. A writer from Ethiopia spent several minutes posting up to get a photo of Obama walking back to the residence. And again, as is custom at these events, nobody was playing it cool.
The mood could only last so long. Once the event ended and the crowd began to thin, reality set back in, and a reporter from Cleveland cornered Governor Kasich for an interview. I didn't hear the question, but it had nothing to do with the Cavs. "That was then and this is now," said Kasich, himself a vocal Trump opponent among Republicans. "We all have to move on from where we were."
Obama expressed similar sentiments a day earlier. "We are now all rooting for his success in uniting and leading the country,” he said. “The peaceful transition of power is one of the hallmarks of our democracy. And over the next few months, we are going to show that to the world."
And Tyronn Lue echoed the same message when he spoke to reporters afterward. "You vote for who you vote for," Lue said, "The president is elected, and I think... It can't be the President, it can't be you, it can't be me. I think collectively we have to come together as a country, as the United States."
Of course, the tenor was different when Obama was re-elected in 2012. "We can't let this happen," Trump said. "We should march on Washington and stop this travesty. Our nation is totally divided!"
As you've probably already read this week, others in the NBA have been vocal in the wake of this election. "I understand problems with the economy," Stan Van Gundy said in Detroit. "I understand all the problems with Hillary Clinton, I do. But certain things in our country should disqualify you. And the fact that millions and millions of Americans don’t think that racism and sexism disqualifies you to be our leader, in our country ... . We presume to tell other countries about human-rights abuses and everything else. We better never do that again, when our leaders talk to China or anybody else about human-rights abuses. We just elected an openly, brazen, misogynist leader and we should keep our mouths shut and realize that we need to be learning maybe from the rest of the world..."
"It’s tough when you want there to be some respect and dignity and there hasn’t been any, and then you walk into a room with your daughter and your wife, who’ve basically been insulted by his comments, and they’re distraught,” Steve Kerr added later on Wednesday. “And you walk in and you see the faces of your players, most of them who have been insulted directly as minorities, it’s sort of shocking. It really is. We talked about it as a team this morning. I don’t know what else to say."
"I'm hopeful," TNT's Ernie Johnson said before the Bulls game Thursday night. "I watched the video today on CNN, of what was going on at the White House. With Donald Trump, President Obama. I was hopeful and I was encouraged, that there will be a difference between the President Trump, and the campaigning Trump. We have to give him a chance. I just hope that he's all in, in fixing the wounds in this country, and the divides separating this country."
Meanwhile, one unnamed Cavs player predicted to Lee Jenkins that this would be the last NBA trip to the White House for the next few years. Maybe it will be. It's hard to say what's next.
"I hope he’s a good president," Kerr added near the end of his remarks this week. "I have no idea what kind of president he’ll be because he hasn’t said anything about what he’s going to do. We don’t know."
For now, the more I’ve thought about it, I'm glad LeBron James didn't speak Thursday. He will probably make a statement Friday, and that'll be fine. The White House would've been the wrong place for an athlete to criticize Donald Trump, especially on a day President Obama was going out of his way to present a united front. But it would've been equally unsettling if LeBron had stepped forward to ask us to pretend the united front is real.
Thursday at the White House was all about professionalism. Obama and Trump said the right things. Obama delivered his Cavs jokes like the seasoned veteran that he is. Even Ty Lue dutifully stepped forward to face reporters who wanted to know what his team thinks of Trump. There were several shows on display, and they all went well. But none of them captured what the mood actually was in Washington yesterday.
I don’t know whether LeBron was too frustrated to speak, not sure what to say, wary of criticizing an incoming president on the White House lawn, or just too exhausted to address any of this after the past few days. Whichever it was, he spoke for everyone else.