Behind the Scenes at the Mavericks White House Visit

Between the overwhelming German press corps and the underwhelming holding pen for journalists covering the visit, the scene wasn't exactly what you would expect.
Behind the Scenes at the Mavericks White House Visit
Photo by Patsy Lynch

Don’t be fooled: the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House is remarkably small. As journalists squeezed through it Monday morning en route to President Obama’s meeting with the 2011 NBA Champion Dallas Mavericks in the East Room, the prevailing language overhead was … German.

The German press corps was out in force to cover their native man, Maverick Dirk Nowitzki—the second European ever to be named the NBA Finals Most Valuable Player—who would present the traditional team jersey to Obama.

A kind of cultural cognitive dissonance momentarily ensued as the Germans took turns approaching two of their countrymen sitting in the front row opposite White House spokesman Jay Carney’s lectern. Given their highly photogenic mugs, perfect teeth, and the group’s overall deference to them, one could surmise they were television announcers of note.

As the press waited, a young man from the University of Munich explained that he was the intern for Zweite Deutsche Fernsehen, a German public television channel. He marveled at how during the NBA finals, which was broadcast in the wee hours in Germany, the American network cut to a bar in Nowitzki’s birthplace of Würzburg to show everyone hoisting a stein for their hometown hero.

The group was eventually led through an adjoining hallway that doubled as a cramped snack room (its drabness reminiscent of the kind employees use behind the scenes at, say, mid-level department stores) before being ushered into an outdoor, subterranean holding tank just to the west of the White House colonnade, where a pecking order arranged itself. Roughly two-dozen photographers, with matching overgrown telephonic lenses, stood impatiently at the foot of the steps to the White House front driveway, each eager to gain the best vantage point. 

A suited man appeared at the top of the stairs, serving as a non-verbal cue, and the group made its way up onto the driveway and through the front door of the Obamas’ house.

And everything changed.

As underwhelming as the White House had seemed up to that point, walking into the foyer was like finally stepping into Willy Wonka’s wondrous chocolate room: the air was heady with tradition and formality; colors took on a heretofore unrecognized vibrancy; an atmosphere of excellence and attention to detail took hold.

Invited guests mingled en masse, while a military trio, in formal dress, played light jazz.

The cross-cultural undercurrent continued, as the largely Texan crowd took seats, and the largely European gaggle of reporters stood on the other side of the yellow rope.

The intersection wasn’t just Nowitzki.

You almost made it here,” said former Dallas Morning News reporter Kevin Shay to former Maverick guard Rolando Blackman, who was sitting near the reporter/invited-guest divide. Blackman, who held the Mavericks’ record for most points scored until Nowitzki broke it, served as a defensive coordinator in Dallas before going on to help the German national Team. Blackman simply smiled, content to enjoy the current Mavericks moment.

Brad Davis, also a former Maverick and now an announcer, sat a few seats away. Chuck Cooperstein, another Mavericks announcer, scrolled through his emails while awaiting the arrival of the president and the champs.

Meanwhile, former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, currently Obama’s trade representative, worked the room, shaking hands and blowing kisses. Royce West, state senator from Dallas, snapped photos of the presidential dais, while U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas took a seat upfront.

Though more Texans voted for John “Maverick” McCain in 2008, those present Monday offered hearty applause for President Obama, between taking photos with their phones. (Obama did, after all, win Dallas County by more than 100,000 votes.)

In his opening remarks, President Obama acknowledged the many Texans assembled and grinned his trademark grin when someone shot back, “Howdy!”

The ceremony, which most had traveled far for, and waited hours to attend, took exactly twelve minutes.

But it was a resonant twelve minutes, and despite the brevity it was somehow clear why Mavericks owner Mark Cuban worked so hard for it. Presidential pomp and circumstance is its own trophy.

Indeed, with presidential tongue loosely in cheek, Obama spoke of how the NBA’s failing to schedule a Mavericks game in Washington—potentially undermining a White House visit—“did not sit well” with the “shy and retiring” Cuban. (Cuban, true to form, claimed he set up the visit on his own, while offering some choice words for the NBA front offices in the bargain.)

Obama went on to extol the underappreciated abilities of the individual championship Mavericks. MVP Nowitzki, for example, had played through a fever and severely injured finger on his shooting hand. Yet “what was really painful,” according to the president, was Nowitzki’s a cappella version Queen’s “We Are the Champions” after the team’s victory.

Nowitzki then presented the first Chicago Bulls fan a jersey sporting Michael Jordan’s #23, and Obama said, “I was actually—I was 23 before Jordan.” 

Oh, you were?” replied Nowitzki.

I was. So he got the number from me, I think,” said the president.

This led to a series of questions from a German colleague standing nearby:

What is this ‘We are the Champions?’”

What is the significance of this number 23?”

What is this about Dirk and a fever?”

Is there going to be a separate time with just Dirk?”

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