Angel Reese helps Jill Biden out of foul trouble

Angel Reese helps Jill Biden out of foul trouble

The crowd gathered in the East Room of the White House seemed to hold its breath as Angel Reese maneuvered past her teammates toward a mahogany table where two Louisiana State University basketball jerseys lay folded.

Which jersey would Reese, the star of LSU's women's team, choose to deliver? Would she take a jersey to President Biden, or would Reese opt for the jersey reserved for first lady Jill Biden, with whom Reese had publicly feuded for days after she led the Lady Tigers to their first-ever national championship?

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Reese raised the white jersey and held it like a banner toward the room. "FLOTUS" it said on the back, with a big purple "46" embroidered with yellow stitching.

Applause gave way to a collective "awww" as Reese, even taller than her usual 6-foot-3 in a pair of tippy heels, bent halfway over to give the 5-foot-5 Jill a hug.

For a sports-loving first lady who had found herself embroiled in the rare political fracas, Reese's gesture was a meaningful assist.

The first lady committed a technical foul last month when she suggested that the Iowa Hawkeyes, whom LSU thoroughly spanked in the title game, might have nevertheless earned an invite to the White House, too. "I know we'll have the champions come to the White House, we always do," she said in extemporaneous remarks after the game. "So, we hope LSU will come. But, you know, I'm going to tell Joe I think Iowa should come, too, because they played such a good game." Reese, who earned the tournament's most outstanding player honors, rebuffed the first lady's eagerness to reward both sides. "A JOKE," Reese tweeted in response to Biden's suggestion.

The Lady Tigers had been wary of the Biden White House even before the first lady's postgame gaffe. President Biden's March Madness bracket had not flattered the underdog team's potential, leading LSU to decline Jill Biden's offer to visit to their locker room before the championship game, according to Reese. ("He didn't even put us on his bracket to get out of Baton Rouge,'" she said.) There was also an impression that Iowa, a mostly White team, had received more favorable media coverage than LSU, a mostly Black team - especially the criticism of Reese's use of the same taunting gesture that one of her White Iowa opponents had used in an earlier game. In that context, the first lady's spontaneous idea to celebrate both teams exacerbated an undercurrent of disrespect. "If we were to lose," Reese later said on a podcast, "we would not be getting invited to the White House."

The White House rushed back on defense. A spokesperson for the first lady said that Biden's comments "were intended to applaud the historic game" and recognize "how far women have advanced in sports since the passing of Title IX." By Friday of that week, President Biden made the unusual move to call Reese individually to congratulate her on her victory. Reese eventually agreed to attend the ceremony - but not before she dug in more deeply. "We'll go to the Obamas," she said on the podcast. "I'm gonna see Michelle. I'm gonna see Barack."

Awkward! But not unprecedented. Lately the Obamas have been a refuge of sports champions who are unimpressed with the White House's more recent occupants. Receptions for America's sports champions became especially fraught occasions during Donald Trump's presidency: Few teams accepted Trump's invitations to celebrate with him. Some never received invites, while others had theirs revoked. (The 2017 Super Bowl champions, the Philadelphia Eagles, memorably had their event replaced with a "Celebration of America" party on the White House lawn after some players spoke out against the president's criticism of players who took a knee during the national anthem.) The Golden State Warriors, NBA champions twice during Trump's presidency, rejected opportunities to celebrate at the White House and met with Obama instead.

The 44th president had spent most of his high school hoops career as a benchwarmer but nevertheless played a pickup game with NBA's biggest stars for his 50th birthday, including Magic Johnson, LeBron James and Chris Paul. (Not to say certain athletes didn't skip out on him, too: Baltimore Ravens offensive lineman Matt Birk declined to join his team to celebrate their 2013 Super Bowl win in protest of Obama's position on abortion rights, while Boston Bruins goalie Tim Thomas, a staunch tea party conservative, refused his team's 2012 Stanley Cup visit.)

Championship celebrations haven't lost their political patina under Biden, but that's because players' politics have more aligned with his. When the Milwaukee Bucks came to the White House to celebrate their 2021 NBA championship win, for example, Biden thanked them for inspiring the leaguewide shutdown to protest the 2020 police shooting of Jacob Blake in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The Golden State Warriors held a roundtable on gun violence, a pet issue of head coach Steve Kerr, during their championship visit earlier this year. Many professional and college sports teams have not been invited to celebrate their championship victories, according to Politico.

But the Lady Tigers were here, despite everything. The first lady spoke first, approaching the lectern in a suit the same hue as LSU's signature purple. "I keep thinking about how far women's sports have come," Jill Biden said, an echo of the comments she made in the aftermath of her initial faux pas. "As I watched, I felt the history of that moment - of all the women before you who dared to be fast and furious, who ignored the critics and just played."

She made no reference to her earlier remarks nor to Reese's criticism; instead, she complimented Reese for shattering major records and said of the team that "in this room, I see the best of the best."

Vice President Harris praised the players for how they conducted themselves on and off the court. "You represent your teammates, your school and your community with dignity and with respect," she said. "You showed the world who you are. You are leaders, you are role models."

Reese stood square to the crowd in the front row among her teammates huddled on risers like a church choir. She wore a tight smile and offered polite golf claps at each applause line, showing the most enthusiasm when the president complimented her for driving up ticket prices. "The cost of tickets went up 10 times," he said. "And more than the men's games."

The only moment of drama: When one of LSU's freshman forwards fainted on the stage, collapsing onto her teammates before hitting the floor. "We leave our mark wherever we go," LSU head coach Kim Mulkey joked before assuring the crowd her player would be fine. (A few EMTs rolled a stretcher into the White House roughly 20 minutes after the ceremony concluded.)

Near the end of his remarks, President Biden lamented that 95 percent of sports stories are still written about male athletes. "It's not an issue here though - not with this team," he said, laughing. Reese gave a knowing smirk as a wave of quiet snickers carried across the room.

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