If equipment supervisor Larry Hare had more than a few days of advance notice, the 44th president of the United States would have received a No. 44 Kansas jersey when he met with the men’s basketball shortly before his campus speech Thursday. But, with plenty of No. 1 jerseys in stock, that was Hare’s choice, and sophomore guard Wayne Selden Jr. was fine with it.
“No, that’s the president’s jersey now,” Selden said afterward. “I’m just wearing No. 1.”
Obama, known to be a passionate fan of college basketball, congratulated the Jayhawks on their big victory over Oklahoma Monday night. When told the Jayhawks next play at Texas on Saturday, he cautioned that they’d better be ready for a tough game.
“He made a point to tell our team that we have disappointed him twice with his picks, when he picked us to win the national championship and we came up short,” coach Bill Self said, in reference to the NCAA Tournament brackets Obama fills out each March on national television. “He said that he didn’t think that he would go that direction this year, but he thought we would be a pretty high seed.”
“He has a nation to take care of,” Selden said, “and he’s watching our games. It’s really big.”
Obama met the players in Wagnon Student Athlete Center’s Hadl Auditorium, from which he made his way to Anschutz Sports Pavilion, where he delivered an important policy speech in front of a festive crowd of KU and Lawrence well-wishers. He and his staff and Secret Service security detail took refuge on the way in both the soccer and softball locker rooms, and the president left messages for both teams on their white boards.
Next to a welcoming message left by soccer players, Obama wrote, “Thanks, Team … and good luck! Go, Jayhawks! Barack Obama.” Afterward, a note was taped to the board: “Obviously … Don’t erase”; signed, “Captain Obvious.”
Junior forward Perry Ellis said basketball players talked among themselves beforehand about how they hoped to meet the president again this summer, because that would mean they had won another NCAA championship.
“He was really humble. He was really welcoming,” Ellis said. “It was a big thing. He made it seem like he was meeting us, but we felt like we were meeting him.”
Self said that while the 15-minute meeting was special for everybody in the program, it might have meant even more to certain players. Freshman guard Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk, who is from Ukraine, shot video on his phone of the entire session, and when junior forward Jamari Traylor and freshman forward Cliff Alexander introduced themselves as being from Chicago, Obama’s hometown, the president immediately asked them which schools they attended.
“He made those kids feel special,” Self said. “I would think that anybody who is in his business is probably used to crowds and knowing how to play to crowds, but he certainly made our guys feel very good today.”
Self reported that Obama “basically said he gave the game up,” but was still “a very good shooter and could beat anybody in horse. … He said, ‘I’m not fast or anything, but I’m faster than most 53-year-olds.'”
Before leaving Hadl Auditorium, the president reminded players to tend to their academics: “You didn’t come here just to play ball.” Self proudly announced to the president that the Jayhawks sported a 2.93 team GPA, but Obama was not impressed.
“You know what he said? ‘Gotta get it up to a 3.’ Which basically tells you, don’t ever be satisfied, which I thought was pretty cool for our guys to hear.”
Though the president’s successful campus visit took place entirely in athletics facilities, Self was not comfortable with the idea of athletics department employees taking any additional credit or praise.
“I wouldn’t say it’s departmentwide; I’d say it’s universitywide,” the coach said about pride members of the campus community felt after the president’s visit. “Any inconvenience it caused by having the president here, I don’t think anybody felt it at all. I think it was a first-class deal and certainly one we should be proud of. It was good to get him on campus.”