WASHINGTON >> Nearly a year sometimes passes between a team winning a championship and its celebratory visit to the White House, but LeBron James and his fellow Cleveland Cavaliers will probably not have to wait that long.
In a congratulatory phone call to Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue on Thursday, President Barack Obama made clear that he did not want his successor to get the honor of hosting the 2016 NBA champions.
“I’m hoping you guys have a chance to come by the White House before I leave office,” Obama said, adding that he wanted to congratulate the team in person. It was an offer Lue quickly accepted.
“We’re definitely going to do that,” Lue said. “If it’s preseason or whatever, we’re going to schedule it so we can come when you’re in the White House, for sure.”
Air Force One travel is Obama’s favorite professional perk, but not far behind is the opportunity to welcome championship sports teams to the White House.
Five years ago on the South Lawn, Obama honored the 1985 Chicago Bears, the Super Bowl champions that season, in a makeup meeting. The Bears’ original White House visit had been canceled because of the Challenger space shuttle disaster.
“This is as much fun as I will have as president of the United States, right here,” Obama said of the team that had enthralled Chicago just as he adopted the Windy City and its sports franchises.
Josh Earnest, the White House press secretary, said that visit ranked among Obama’s favorites. In recent months, Obama’s delight in welcoming championship athletes to the White House has been obvious.
“I have to say, I’m so pleased to be able to host Peyton here at the White House before I left,” Obama said at a June 6 celebration for the Super Bowl champion Denver Broncos. He had already teased quarterback Peyton Manning about being in TV commercials for enough merchandise to “stock your whole household.”
One week earlier, Obama had welcomed the Villanova University men’s basketball team, which won the NCAA championship in “what may be the best title game of all time” — the president’s description of the Wildcats’ last-second victory over North Carolina. On Monday, he will host the Minnesota Lynx, the WNBA champions.
Above all, Obama is a basketball fan. He was a member of his high school team, and he continued playing until recently. On the return flight from a weekend visit to Yosemite National Park on June 19, Obama and his family remained on Air Force One until the end of the last game of the NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Cavaliers.
He scrimmaged with the University of North Carolina team during the 2008 campaign, and a Sports Illustrated writer recently produced a book, “The Audacity of Hoop,” about how basketball had been crucial to Obama’s maturation.
“I hung it up about two years ago,” Obama said in his talk with Lue. “You know, I had too many friends seeing that Achilles pop. Be in a boot for six months.”
At a ceremony in February to honor the Golden State Warriors, who won the NBA crown last year, Obama said he could appreciate their talent.
“I don’t play anymore, but I still know a little bit about basketball, and this really is one of the best that we’ve ever seen,” he said of the Warriors.
Obama often admits to any sports team that is not from Chicago that he was rooting against it.
“The whole point of being a sports fan is to root for your team,” Earnest said of the president. “I think to do otherwise would take a lot of the fun out of it.”
But Obama has sought to go beyond simply celebrating a team’s on-court or on-field accomplishments by highlighting its community service. The Broncos played catch on the South Lawn with injured service members before their Rose Garden ceremony, and the U.S. women’s soccer team held a clinic.
“They should be recognized not just for their championship performance on the field, but their commitment off the field, as well,” Earnest said.
As he issued his invitation to Lue, Obama made clear that he, too, had firm notions of decorum.
“Tell J.R. and everybody to put on a shirt, though,” Obama said. J.R. Smith, a Cavaliers guard, was photographed bare-chested for days after the victory. “He can’t just be wandering around without a shirt for, like, the whole week.”