WASHINGTON -- President Bush on Friday welcomed the Boston Celtics to the White House to celeberate the team's 17th NBA championship, declaring "Celtic pride is back."
Bush saluted Celtics' captain Paul Pierce, who led the team to a title and was MVP of the finals despite suffering a knee injury early in the series.
"Playing hurt in a championship game is the ultimate sign of leadership," Bush said during an East Room ceremony.
The team's players, owners and coaches presented the president with a green Celtics jersey emblazoned with "43," a nod to Bush's standing as the 43rd president, and an autographed basketball. The team also said it would send a $100,000 check to the Red Cross to help victims of Hurricane Ike.
Celtics fans, a few wearing Red Sox caps and many, like Vermont Sen. Pat Leahy, snapping photos with their cameras, packed the East Room.
The Celtics beat the Los Angeles Lakers in six games in June to end a 22-year championship drought. The title capped a dramatic turnaround for the Celtics, who had the second-worst record in the NBA during the 2006-07 season.
"There was a little bit of a drought, but sure enough that drought ended with the NBA championship," said Bush.
Bush said that like other sports fans across the country, he was delighted that this year's bruising final series rekindled the old Celtics-Lakers rivalry.
"For baby boomers like me, that is the -- that was a reminder of a great basketball rivalry," Bush said. "So, like, Boston fans were screaming, 'Beat L.A.!' at the top of their lungs, and that's exactly what this team did in six hard-fought games."
It was the Celtics' first title without Red Auerbach, the famed team patriarch who died in October 2006 after being part of the other 16 championships, nine as coach.
Hosting Boston's successful pro sports teams at White House ceremonies is nothing new for Bush.
In February, the 2007 World Series champion Red Sox were honored at the White House for the second time in four years. The New England Patriots have three Super Bowl wins, beginning in 2002. The Patriots were last honored at the White House in 2005.
Bush joked that a friend had suggested he could host a "Boston Three Party" for the city's championship teams.
After the ceremony, Pierce said meeting the president was more nerve-wracking than the NBA finals.
"I got real nervous back there, my hands were sweaty," he said. "I was more nervous right here today."
Bush, who is winding down his presidency, wished the team well defending its title this season. But he added that a new president will be hosting next year's White House event for the NBA champs.
"Should you win it, you can find me in Texas," he said with a laugh.