Duke Now

President Obama honors Duke’s NCAA championship team at the White House

When it was Mike Krzyzewski’s turn Tuesday to take the microphone at the White House, he suggested that “Saturday Night Live” should tap President Barack Obama as a permanent host after his second term ends.

The crowd in the East Room laughed. But not has hard as they had laughed for Obama’s stream of jokes as he honored Duke for its 2015 national championship.

“I can relate to this program. Does well in the classroom, won twice in the past four years,” Obama said (technically five years, but who’s counting). “Know what it’s like for people to oppose you no matter what you try to do. When I flip on ESPN and see a documentary about how people still hate Christian Laettner, a guy who played for Duke 23 years ago, I realize that maybe I don’t have it so bad. Or I think that this is going to be a long 23 years.

“But here’s the thing. If folks didn’t like this year’s Blue Devils, they were just being haters. Or they lived in Chapel Hill. Because these guys were fun.”

And Obama proceeded to recap the 2014-15 season: 14 consecutive wins to open the year, but just eight scholarship players left – four of them freshmen – by the time the NCAA tournament began. But what a quartet it was.

There was All-American center Jahlil Okafor, the No. 3 overall pick in the NBA draft to the Philadelphia 76ers. And Justise Winslow, who went No. 10 to the Miami Heat. And Tyus Jones –“or Tyus Stones,” as Obama said – the most outstanding player of the Final Four who was also a first-round draft pick and now is with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“And then there was Grayson Allen, who just went crazy,” Obama said of the fourth freshman. “He clearly didn’t know any better and just said, well, I’m going to score eight straight points at the end of a game.

“In that championship game against Wisconsin, the four freshmen scored every point in the second half. The Blue Devils shut down the most efficient offense in the country when they needed to. And that lockdown defense, which, let’s face it, had not been evident in every game during the season, was the key to Duke’s fifth title run.”

It was an apt summary for last year’s team, which used this two-day trip to the nation’s capital as a family reunion.

“Everyone is off in their own world doing their own thing now,” senior Amile Jefferson said. “So to have all the guys, the group back, is really cool.”

The team – including this year’s freshmen, who sat in the audience for Obama’s presentation – arrived Monday afternoon. The chairman of Duke’s board of trustees, David Rubenstein, rented out the National Archives Museum (home of the original Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights and Magna Carta), where the Blue Devils were surprised with the presentation of their diamond bedazzled championship rings.

“It’s a perfect way to wrap up the story for us,” Jones said. “We’re still floating on cloud nine, it’s still an amazing feeling, and it doesn’t feel like it was real.”

Tuesday morning brought a tour of White House and private reception with Obama, a noted basketball fan.

“He definitely knows his stuff,” said Quinn Cook, last season’s lone scholarship senior. “He knows. He knows a lot, man. I was surprised how much he knew. Obviously everybody watches basketball, but he knows stats, he knows that game, this game, it was amazing.”

“He’s a guy’s guy,” Krzyzewski said afterward of Obama. “He knows how to have fun.”

And how to poke fun. When introducing Krzyzewski, Obama referred to him as an “up-and-coming coach,” before dropping an Oscar Wilde literary reference.

“Although he does look the same, did you notice?” Obama said. “There’s that whole Dorian Gray mirror thing going on somewhere.”

The Blue Devils brought Obama a framed personalized jersey, a signed basketball, and a framed copy of the final 2015 NCAA tournament bracket. And one other gift was extended verbally: a scholarship to K Academy, Krzyzewski’s annual fantasy basketball camp that costs $10,000, after Obama leaves the White House. Krzyzewski said that Obama’s former body man (and former Duke basketball player) Reggie Love has said the president can play.

“It’s for guys 35 and over,” Krzyzewski said.

“I’ll dominate,” Obama quickly responded.

And while laughs were frequent, the ceremony wasn’t all just jokes. Krzyzewski thanked Obama sincerely for his service to the country, calling him an amazing leader and acknowledging the sacrifices the Obama family has made, too. Krzyzewski urged the applauding crowd to their feet for a standing ovation.

And after Krzyzewski was off the stage and in the back of the room speaking with the media, a TV cameraman asked him about a joke he had made during his speech about this year’s team duplicating last year’s success.

“Well, I wasn’t joking,” Krzyzewski said. “I was pleading with them to do it again.”

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