WASHINGTON, D.C. — Before leaving the nation’s capital, the Storm stopped by the White House on Monday, marking the return to normalcy when sports teams regularly received invitations to celebrate championships and their athletic achievements.
President Joe Biden hosted an entourage led by Storm captains Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart, coach Noelle Quinn and the team’s all-female ownership group of Ginny Gilder, Lisa Brummel and Dawn Trudeau.
WNBA commissioner Cathy Engelbert was also in attendance during the 20-minute ceremony inside the East Room, which commemorated Seattle’s 2020 WNBA championship, the fourth in franchise history.
“It feels good to be back in this place and to have our achievements celebrated in this way,” Bird told Biden and a roomful of White House staffers. “I’d be remiss and I wouldn’t truly be representing our league if I didn’t talk about the work that still needs to be done in our country and our communities. But also the work that we have been doing, and we’re going to continue to do it, because this team is special. And that’s what made the 2020 season so special.”
Biden spoke for about nine minutes and applauded the Storm for its work on and off the court.
“What makes this even more remarkable is they don’t just win games, they change lives,” he said. “They encourage people to get vaccinated so we can beat this pandemic. They speak out and stand up for racial justice and voting rights. Supporting education and mentorship programs for young people. And fighting to protect trans youth from an epidemic of violence and discrimination. That’s what winners do. They shine in the light. They lift people up. They are a force for change. That’s the Seattle Storm. That’s the WNBA. That’s what they do.”
Biden added: “These women are amazing athletes. They’re the best in the world. We honor them by showing up for them. To the whole Storm family, thank you all, and congratulations.”
Midway through his speech, Biden went off script and playfully chided Stewart, a North Syracuse, New York, native for playing basketball at the University of Connecticut rather than Syracuse, where Biden went to law school.
“I just want you to know, I remember,” he said. “It was a big disappointment. Everybody knew how incredible she was when she was in high school.”
Stewart countered: “If he went to Syracuse, then he can jab me a little bit about it. I appreciate him being aware of my hometown where he went to college.”
Stewart received plenty of attention from Biden, who congratulated her on becoming a mom and winning an Olympic gold medal at the Tokyo Summer Games.
“WNBA championship, Olympic gold and the precious Ruby,” Biden said in reference to Stewart’s baby girl, born Aug. 9. “What a year. It’s a helluva year you’ve had.”
Storm coach Noelle Quinn and players Mercedes Russell, Jordin Canada and Epiphanny Prince were reunited with former teammates Morgan Tuck and Crystal Langhorne, the team’s new director of community engagement.
The White House celebration also allowed the Storm to visit with former coach Dan Hughes, who abruptly retired May 30 three weeks after the start of the season.
The members of the 2020 Storm team not in attendance included Natasha Howard and Sami Whitcomb, who now play for the New York Liberty, and Washington Mystics forward Alysha Clark, who revealed on social media that she tested positive for the coronavirus and is quarantining.
“It felt amazing to be on the stage and to be complimented by President Biden,” Stewart said. “To have Ginny up there and Lang up there and Sue speaking. It just goes to show what we have going on in this organization and the people behind it that help make the Seattle Storm what we are. And to have President Biden acknowledge that is special.”
Biden received a No. 46 jersey from Stewart and Loyd and posed for a team picture on the East Room podium.
“It just all felt very normal, and it’s just too bad things weren’t like this sooner,” said Stewart, noting the five-year gap between WNBA team visits to the White House. “It’s just too bad.”
Sports teams began visiting the White House in 1865 when President Andrew Johnson welcomed the amateur baseball teams Washington Nationals and Brooklyn Atlantics.
During Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s, it became standard script for championship teams to visit the White House for a ceremonial photo opportunity that included an exchange of team jerseys and lighthearted banter with the president.
In the past few decades, the tradition became more political, as various players declined invitations due to philosophical or ethical differences with whomever occupied the Oval Office.
Michael Jordan, Tom Brady and Larry Bird ducked out of White House visits for various reasons.
In 2012, Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Matt Birk, an opponent of abortion rights, and Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, an avid backer of the conservative Tea Party, refused to accompany their teams on visits with President Barack Obama because of politics.
During former President Donald Trump’s term, the tradition became a political litmus test due to a variety of issues, not excluding his hard stance on kneeling during the national anthem and public feuds with many athletes, including former San Francisco quarterback Colin Kaepernick and soccer star Megan Rapinoe, who plays for OL Reign and is engaged to Bird.
“A visit to the White House, and I’ve been lucky to go two times before, has always been a tremendous honor to be invited,” said Bird, who went after winning the NCAA women’s basketball title with the Connecticut Huskies and in 2010 after the Storm’s second WNBA championship. “It’s sad in a way that no WNBA team has been invited in the last couple of years, and we know why. It’s nice to have a president in the office who’s going to recognize women and their success.”
Trump received visits from the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, World Series champion Houston Astros, Stanley Cup champions Pittsburgh Penguins and NCAA football champions Alabama and Clemson.
However, no WNBA or NBA team has visited the White House since the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2016, the last year Obama was in office.
It’s not surprising the Storm received a White House invitation from Biden considering last year the team made the unorthodox decision to endorse his presidential bid.
The WNBA also dived into the 2020 election and backed Democratic Georgia Sen. Raphael Warnock in his successful bid to unseat incumbent Kelly Loeffler, who at the time was co-owner of the WNBA’s Atlanta Dream.
Following the ceremony, Biden and the team strode out of the East Room as Queen’s “We are the Champions” was played by a chorus of violins.
Quinn said she hopes the Storm’s White House visit is the first of many.
“We’re the first WNBA team that has been her in a while,” Quinn said. “Obviously, with the climate of our world and the change of administration, hopefully we are moving in the right direction as far as a people towards more peace, more equality. This past couple of years has amplified a lot of things that may be wrong with our world, but there’s hope in this administration.
“Overall, it’s a great honor to be back at the White House to honor our 2020 team. I’m excited about it. It’s been a grind on this road trip, but it’s something that you’ll always remember. I think it’s important for everyone.”
The Storm (18-7) is locked in a three-way on top of the WNBA standings with the Las Vegas Aces and Connecticut Sun, each of which has a 17-6 record.
Seattle, which beat the Washington Mystics 85-78 on Sunday, concludes a five-game road trip on Tuesday against the Minnesota Lynx.
“This White House trip really came quick and out of nowhere in terms of planning, but it’s on brand with this road trip and our season so far,” Quinn said. “A lot of curveballs and a lot of different things happening this year.
“But just like everything, we stay the course and fight through adversity and try to push through. And let’s be real, when the President calls, you find a way to make it happen.”
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