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Wildcats at the White House: An exclusing running diary

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The national champion Kentucky Wildcats were welcomed at the White House by President Barack Obama on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics) The national champion Kentucky Wildcats were welcomed at the White House by President Barack Obama on Friday. (Chet White, UK Athletics)
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Days flew by during Kentucky's run to an eighth national championship, but none faster than the one the Wildcats spent traveling to Washington, D.C., for a visit to the White House with President Barack Obama.

Within a few hours, the national champions boarded a plane in Lexington, flew to the nation's capital, toured one of the world's most famous buildings and met its most powerful man. Even for a team that had experienced a whirlwind two months, this was something special.

And I was lucky enough to be along for the ride. In an effort to chronicle the unforgettable moments, Cat Scratches and brings you this running diary of UK's trip to D.C.

1 p.m. - Wheels up

At noon on Friday, players gathered at the Joe Craft Center to catch a bus that would drive them to TAC Air. There, they met coaches, staff and families to form a group that totaled around 50. A chartered jet awaited them to shuttle them to Washington, and not a seat would be empty.

Even before the festivities got going, it became clear the day would be a special one. The players looked good, all dressed in suits, but more meaningfully, they were all together.

From October to the first days of April, this group of players and coaches spent countless hours in the company of one another. But since the national championship celebration, occasions have been few and far between that they have all been in the same place at the same time, and there may not have been any at all. To take it a step further, this trip may have just represented the last time they are all together.

Even though it had been a while since they'd last assembled, it didn't take long for them pick up where they left off. John Calipari made the rounds before takeoff, catching up with the players who had won him his first national title. He talked with Marquis Teague, reflecting on a big shot Teague's brother Jeff had hit in an NBA playoff game. Next, he chatted with Anthony Davis about being named a finalist for Team USA, with Coach Cal trying to put in perspective the enormity of the achievement.

Entertainingly, a flight attendant was waiting to talk to Davis since he was sitting in the emergency exit aisle. It turns out even national players of the year need to be briefed on air safety protocol.

Everyone took their seats when the fasten seat belt sign was turned on and the plane was in the air soon after. Lunch was served during the flight while a few support staffers circulated the plane to have players and coaches sign basketballs that would later be gifts for the president.

After an hour-long flight, the Cats were on the ground at Dulles Airport to change modes of transportation.

2:20 p.m. - Coach Cal plays tour guide

Just minutes after landing, a bus was on the tarmac to carry UK into the heart of Washington, D.C. After loading a few bags and gifts, the team took to Interstate 66. Reunited, the players were still enjoying each other's company quite a bit, most notably by watching Terrence Jones' live performance of "Teach Me 'Bout Kentucky" from a few nights ago.

As the bus entered the city, Coach Cal took to the speaker system to point out a few of D.C.'s most famous landmarks. To limited heckling from the back of the bus where the players were sitting, he directed attention toward the White House off in the distance, the Lincoln Memorial and the Capitol. His only misstep, which he corrected quickly, was calling the Washington Monument the "Washington Memorial." It's fortunate he just signed a new deal as UK head coach, because he might have pursued a future as a tour guide otherwise.

Navigating the D.C. traffic, the provisional plan was to make a quick pit stop at the Martin Luther King, Jr., National Memorial for some pictures, but things needed to be moved along. It was time to head to the White House.

3:20 p.m. - Security

You may not have realized this, but they don't just let anybody onto the grounds at the White House.

UK's bus turned onto a barricaded road with a checkpoint and a member of the Secret Service boarded to brief the team on security protocol at the White House, which is called "The Rock" by those who work there. Before he did, he had a question.

"Where's number 14?" he said, looking for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

It turns out he was Kidd-Gilchrist's uncle. Davis wasted no time in coming up with a retort.

"How many uncles you got?"

Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics
After that, the team went through baggage checks and security scans, which I would best compare to a much more intensive yet much more efficiently run version of airport security. Everyone quickly passed through that and most of the team moved inside for the tour, but Davis, Teague, Kidd-Gilchrist, Darius Miller, Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Coach Cal stayed outside momentarily for an interview with Andy Katz, who was filming a special on UK's visit which will air May 11 at 11:30 p.m. Once they were finished, they caught up with the rest of the group.


3:55 p.m. - Tour time

Tours of the White House are limited these days to a smaller portion of the building than in the past, but there were still ample sights to be seen.

The Wildcats went room by room, as Secret Service officers described the historic nature of each. The first that really caught the players' eyes was the movie room, a beautifully appointed small theater with seats that looked like beds. As the tour moved on, plenty of pictures and videos were taken, many of which figure to end up on Twitter in the coming days.

In my opinion, the most interesting room we had a chance to see was one in which the president customarily hosts foreign dignitaries and places important phone calls. Most famously, it was the place where he called fellow world leaders to pass along the news that Osama bin Laden had been killed last year.

Before no time, the tour was over and it was time to start planning for what was next.


4:30 p.m. - Prepping for Mr. President

First, it had to be decided which players would fill which roles in the event with President Obama. There were plenty of takers, but eventually it was decided that graduating seniors Miller and Eloy Vargas and recently named Team USA finalist Davis would do the honors. Kyle Wiltjer wanted to be involved, but Coach Cal had some reassuring words for the freshman.

"You can do it next year, Kyle," Calipari said, words that are sure to thrill Kentucky fans.

From there, the team and coaching staff was shuffled into another room, where they would make some final preparations and await the president. Unfortunately, I had to move into the room where the event would be held, so I did not bear witness to the first meeting. However, I did hear an account of it. The team was goofing around, anticipating President Obama would enter through the door they were facing. They were taken off guard by a booming voice that came in through a door behind them, with the president saying, "Hey, Wildcats!"

5 p.m. - "Hail to the Chief"

The tour was cool, but there simply aren't many people who get to be in the same room as any President, let alone shake his hand as the entire team did.

The Wildcats took to a set of risers behind the podium that bore the presidential seal and, not long after, President Obama came in to cheers and a standing ovation from the packed room. Coach Cal took his spot on the stage behind the president and to his left, listening as he delivered remarks about the national champs.

President Obama admitted his error in picking against UK at the start of the tournament, saying he couldn't get past the Cats' youth, but in the end, their unselfishness and commitment to a common cause carried them to an eighth title. The theme of his speech was one we've heard countless times since the Final Four, but it sounded different coming from the commander-in-chief.

After the president and Coach Cal had spoken, it was time for the giving of gifts and, I must say, President Obama did alright for himself. Miller gave him a home white UK jersey with his No. 1 and "Obama" on the back. Vargas stepped forward to give him a basketball signed by the team, surprising many by throwing a chest pass to the president. I'm sure it was a scripted moment, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Finally, Davis, a Chicago native like the president, gave him a national championship ring, the first one made.



5:20 p.m. - Goodbyes

After a few more pictures and a few autographs for UK fans who knew the team would be there, the bus was once again ready to be boarded, but not by Kidd-Gilchrist.

Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics Photo by Chet White, UK Athletics
With finals over on Friday, the swingman who captured the hearts of UK fans in just one season was off to go prepare for the NBA Draft. He will be back in Lexington over the next few weeks, but it was still a poignant moment as he gave hugs and handshakes to every familiar face in sight. Everyone knew this was coming, but the goodbyes made it sink in once and for all: This really is the final time this group will be together as it was assembled in 2011-12.

The remainder of the team headed to the airport for a flight back to the Bluegrass that left at 7 p.m., with Sam Malone and Brian Long splitting off to head home for the first few weeks of the summer. There weren't a lot of empty seats on the flight home that landed, but everyone on the plane knew the scattered vacancies reinforced that a special season is over.

But what a way for it to end.

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