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The President, the King, and Me

A day at the White House with Obama and the Cavs

Getty Images
Getty Images

On Thursday, I got to visit the White House. I was supposed to go there to watch the president talk about the Cavs for a few minutes as a way to congratulate them on winning the 2016 championship, and I definitely did that. But really I went because I didn’t think it was a real thing when I got asked if I wanted to go, because how could that ever be a real thing?

LeBron was there. J.R. Smith was there. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love and Tristan Thompson were there. All the Cavs were there, of course. So was the team’s majority owner, Dan Gilbert, and the GM, David Griffin, and the coach, Tyronn Lue. It was neat. A bunch of people — maybe 60 or 70 — were allowed in to watch as guests. We were all sitting in chairs on the South Lawn looking at an empty stage for 30 minutes while a military band played jazz near a tree. Eventually, a voice on a speaker announced that the Cavs were about to walk out (“Ladies and gentlemen, the 2016 world champion Cleveland Cavaliers,” or something close to that), and then the Cavs walked out. Then the voice announced that President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were coming out (“TURN THE FUCK UP, EVERYONE! IT’S THE LEGEND BARRY O. AND THE MYTH JOEY B!” is what it felt like, but what he said was likely, “Ladies and gentlemen, the president and vice president of the United States of America”), and then they walked out, too.

In my entire life, that’s the closest I’ve ever been to President Obama, or to any president. (It’s also the closest I’ve ever been to Tyronn Lue, though that feels less meaningful at the moment.) President Obama has a remarkable gravity to him. I remember reading a thing in a science textbook several years ago that said that parts of the sun were so dense that a spoonful of it would weigh as much as a large truck does on Earth. That’s what I was thinking about when I watched him talk. I’ve seen him give dozens of speeches on TV or through my computer screen, and they are always good and captivating. In person, though, they feel bigger. Each word feels like a continent, even when he’s talking about basketball, or basketball players. It’s wonderful. And so I thought about that as he talked, and then I thought about where I was, and then I thought about who I was, and it all ended up being way more emotional than I was anticipating, really. I would rather keep most of those thoughts to myself, but the gist of them was: How TF did I get here?

The whole ceremony honoring the Cavs lasted less than 15 minutes. President Obama told some jokes and also passed along some praise on account of the work the team and its ownership have done in their community, and it was all fine. By most accounts, it was standard fare — prior to going, I’d watched videos of him doing the same thing for a few different teams in a few different sports. This one was very much like those. You can actually already watch Thursday’s right here:

After it was over, President Obama stood around for a few minutes and took pictures and said hello to people. My wife, who is an especially big supporter of his, was able to steal a moment with him. She smiled and shook his hand and said a nice thing and he smiled and shook hers and said a nice thing back and then when he let go she let out a squeal and then immediately searched out a chair. “I feel like I’m going to pass out,” she said, shaking, full of love, and it was beautiful, and so was she. We sat there for a couple of minutes and I watched her and smiled. “That was great,” I said. “Did that really just happen?” she asked. “He’s exactly as tall as I thought he’d be,” I said. “Did that really just happen?” she asked again. For the next few moments, none of our sentences were connected. I would say a thing or ask a thing and she would respond with something that did not have anything to do with whatever it was I said. It was the most I’ve ever enjoyed miscommunicating with someone.

Tuesday evening, which was the same night I found out I’d be going to the White House, I watched the election. It was gross, gross. I was hopeful that Hillary Clinton was going to win — “Surely, there’s no chance Trump pulls this off,” I thought to myself, recalling the list of all the horrible things he had said or done or been exposed for, or as, during the months leading up to election night, as I sat in front of the TV and refreshed Twitter on my phone. And at times, I thought that she would; slivers of hope were there — early in the evening, for example, it looked like Hillary was positioned well, or after she had won California, which, looking back on it now, felt more substantial than it actually was. But then, like some sort of horrific movie, the tallies would come in, each one helping to peel back the top layer of the country to reveal all of the hate still tucked away inside of it, and it was upsetting and frustrating and all I could do was ache and know that so many of my friends and family members were feeling that same ache. It wasn’t necessarily comforting, but it was at least something.

AP Images
AP Images

Donald Trump was also at the White House on Thursday to meet with President Obama. I’d seen that he was there on the news before we had left the hotel that morning, and then of course people at the actual White House were talking about it as well.

Following the conclusion of the Cavs event, a friend of mine who works at the White House took my wife and me around and showed us interesting things we wouldn’t have gotten to see otherwise, and then after that I asked a separate friend who works there to take us to some different spots, and he did, and while we were doing that I was wondering if I was going to see Trump. I looked in the sky for a big, dark rain cloud because I thought if I found that then he’d surely be standing under it. Alas, there was nothing. I looked for a dumpster or large trash can that had been turned over or rummaged through as proof he was nearby because maybe he had gotten hungry on his visit and needed to eat. Nothing. I scanned the grass and the concrete as we walked the grounds of White House, because I thought if I saw a trail of dead birds or something then that meant we were on Trump’s tail and would catch him, but alas, I did not find those either. I don’t know what I would have said if I had seen him. Probably nothing. Definitely nothing. All I know is that thinking about it made me feel the opposite of how I felt watching my wife react to meeting President Obama.

As President Obama talked during the Cavs thing, I tried to watch the faces of the players, hoping to catch a tiny thing that I otherwise would not have been able to see were I not there. Minus just getting to be at the White House and see President Obama, that’s what I was most looking forward to. I was hoping I’d get to see, say, Kevin Love lean over and make a quick joke about something to Tristan Thompson or whatever. Or maybe I’d see James Jones accidentally sneeze on someone. Or maybe LeBron would shoot a face at Kyrie Irving that I could point back to during a bad game in the playoffs as evidence of a secret rivalry between the two that I had been the only one astute enough to spot. Or maybe I’d see J.R. Smith step down off the tiny bleachers the team was standing on and whisper into President Obama’s ear, “Where the hoes at?” Any of those things were things I was hoping for. That’s why I’d come. But none of those things happened. And I was almost disappointed for half a second. And then I realized it didn’t matter. Because I was there.