President fetes Heat with hardwood humor

WASHINGTON -- It wasn’t so much a presidential championship ceremony as it was Barack Obama’s comedy hour.

And of course, the loudest laugh of the day had to come at the expense of Heat point guard Mario Chalmers. It had to. Before wrapping up his speech commemorating the Heat’s 2013 championship season, Obama delivered the punch line that brought down the White House.

“With that, I think we should take a picture, but we should make it quick before one of these guys starts yelling at Mario,” Obama said.

In the background, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chalmers all could be seen buckling in laughter, joining the rest of the audience inside a packed East Room.

The Miami Heat endured a humbling week, losing back-to-back games against the New York Knicks and then the Brooklyn Nets. But there are humbling experiences in the NBA schedule and then there is being the butt of a barrage of jokes from the leader of the free world, a lifelong Bulls fan and Chicago native.

“At one point, they won 27 games straight -- the second-longest winning streak ever, extraordinarily impressive,” said Obama. “Almost as impressive as the Bulls’ 72-win season.”


"We’ve got some outstanding members of Congress who are big fans of the Heat,” Obama said. “They’re from both parties, because we all know nothing brings people together like the Miami Heat.”

More laughter.

“This group has won twice now, but it’s gone to the Finals three times,” Obama said. “And sometimes it feels like they’re still fighting for a little respect. I can relate to that.”

Even more.

“Ray is backing up ... he’s got to jump forward ... hits one of the most iconic shots of all time. And then he added a few choice words about the ropes, which we cannot -- (laughter) -- which we cannot repeat here. But, Ray, I do want you to know that when you say those things on the court, like, people can read your lips, right? You do understand that?"

“Yeah,” Allen replied.

“OK, all right.”

Oh, you thought Obama was done?

“And from Ray’s big shot to the contributions of Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier, Udonis Haslem, Birdman, Birdman’s tattoos ... Birdman’s mohawk ... the Heat showed us the kind of heart and determination it takes to be a champion.”

And finally, in a moment of diplomacy, Obama turned around to the Heat squad and extended an olive branch to Chalmers just before Heat coach Erik Spoelstra took the stage.

“I mean, sometimes it’s just a bad pass, guys,” Obama said. “It’s not Mario’s fault. I got your back, man.”

Being a die-hard hoops fan, Obama stole the show as expected, knocking the Heat down a couple pegs on their special visit, the second time in two years for this edition of the Heat. It was a day characterized by loose banter best exemplified by James, who opted to wear a suit without a tie, and Wade, who entered the room, walked onto the risers and shouted out “Instagram!” to the audience.

On a pedestal next to Obama stood the Heat’s gift to the president, a black replica of the Larry O’Brien Trophy signed by every one of the players. The names and jersey numbers of the players on the championship roster were inscribed on the front of the trophy. Included on the roster was a “44 Barack Obama” line in the middle that stood out in larger font, as if it were a word cloud weighted by world power.

Spoelstra presented the trophy to Obama as a “covenant” of the Heat season.

“You know,” Obama said as he clutched the trophy, “you guys are starting to win me over.”

“Getting there, getting there,” Spoelstra said.

It’s sometimes hard to imagine that this is largely the same group that absorbed a nation’s animus when it came together just 2½ years ago. Tuesday’s visit to the White House was just another reminder of the once-fiery perception has changed.

Last week, the Heat lost to two New York teams, and instead of chicken-little coverage, the basketball world collectively shrugged its shoulders.

Maybe it’s the nightly video bombs. Maybe it’s just a collection of other lighthearted moments, like the time James elatedly tackled a Heat fan who made a half-court hook shot during a timeout last season, a moment that is now part of a television commercial. Or the other day when James took to Twitter and poked fun at his receding hairline and his sleepy 2011 Finals performance.

It seems the Heat are starting to win over the national audience.

Of course, these are the dog days of the NBA season in January, when sports fans’ attention only begins to turn away from the gridiron and onto the hardwood. The trade season hasn’t ramped up yet and the Heat have hummed along largely without adversity while a good deal of the league battles devastating injuries. Through it all, this team hasn’t offered much material to the waning detractors.

Indeed, there’s still a lot of time left in the season for that to happen. After visiting the White House on Tuesday, the Heat will play in the Verizon Center against the Washington Wizards, who are currently the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference despite a 17-19 record. The Heat find themselves 2½ games behind the Indiana Pacers for the top seed in the sorry East and their cushion in the second slot now sits at 7½ games.

But it’s good to be the defending champions. As the laughter-riddled ceremony wrapped up, Spoelstra came out of his normally guarded shell and told Obama that another autographed trophy may be in the works.

“We promise we’ll put together another one for you,” Spoelstra said, “and let you mark it this year.”

But can you blame Spoelstra for his boldness in the moment? After all, it seems the Heat always get the last laugh on the court these days.