WASHINGTON—Quinn Cook grew up in the nation's capital, but never had the opportunity to set foot inside its most iconic building.
Tuesday morning, he got his chance, surrounded, fittingly, by the teammates who helped him climb to the top of the college basketball world.
President Barack Obama welcomed the Blue Devils to the White House to congratulate them on the program's fifth national title, captured in April against Wisconsin in Indianapolis. After mentioning two alumni of head coach Mike Krzyzewski's program who found homes in his administration—former body man and Blue Devil forward Reggie Love and former White House intern and team manager Derek Rhodes—Obama, an astute basketball fan, turned his attention to the players behind him, recounting their run through the NCAA tournament and onto the podium.
"They had a soft-spoken All-American in the middle, Jahlil Okafor—from the Chicago area, I might just add—whose size and footwork bent defenses in a way that people hadn’t seen in a very long time," Obama said from the East Room. "Quinn Cook provided senior leadership, setting a school all-time assist-to-turnover record. And then there was Grayson Allen, who just went crazy."
After returning to Durham in April, a team that had been so close during the season soon disbanded—Okafor, Tyus Jones and classmate Justise Winslow left early for the NBA, Cook graduated and the coaching staff immediately hit the recruiting trail. Reuniting at Tuesday's ceremony made the occasion even more special.
In finding a day for the ceremony, the Blue Devils had to juggle workout and class schedules, the calendars of their now-professional teammates—and Obama's availability.
For Jones, missing the occasion was never an option.
"We put any other plans we had aside and made this the number one priority for sure," Jones said. "It’s like a family reunion—the past 24, 36 hours have truly been amazing."
After Obama's remarks, Krzyzewski extended an offer to the president to join him in Durham for his fantasy camp, Coach K Academy, when his term expires. The president—who practiced with North Carolina and head coach Roy Williams while on the campaign trail in 2008—was interested.
"I'll dominate," he said.
It was one of many light-hearted moments at Tuesday's ceremony. As he did when the 2010 national championship team made its visit to the White House, Krzyzewski offered Obama a filled-out tournament bracket—the "approved solutions" to the test. The president picked Kentucky to cut down the nets in 2015 and had the Blue Devils advancing to the Final Four before being knocked out by Villanova.
"He’s such a basketball guy," Krzyzewski said when asked about teasing the president with the bracket. "In addition to being a great leader and a great man.... He knows how to have fun."
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In addition to the bracket, Duke also presented Obama with a signed basketball and a customized jersey.
Before the ceremony, Obama met with the team and talked basketball. Cook said he was surprised by the depth of the president's knowledge. Once the ceremony started, the president kept the team at ease with his humor.
"He had so much charisma, and I think just being a basketball guy, it was easy for him to joke with us a little bit," senior Amile Jefferson said.
The congratulations from the president extended beyond the hardwood. Obama commended five Blue Devils for their selection to the All-ACC Academic team, praised the team's work at the Emily Krzyzewski Center in Durham and singled out redshirt senior Marshall Plumlee, who spent part of his summer at Fort Knox working toward earning a commission in the U.S. Army.
"This is the kind of program that we hope for at any institution of higher learning. They represent their university well on and off the court," Obama said. "And that's why their fans are so passionate.... But they deserve every accolade."
Tuesday's ceremony was the culmination of a whirlwind Labor Day weekend for the Blue Devils, who received their championship rings as a surprise during a dinner ceremony at the National Archives, which includes an exhibit named after David Rubenstein, chair of the Duke Board of Trustees. Rubenstein joined Krzyzewski, University President Richard Brodhead and vice president and director of athletics Kevin White onstage Tuesday.
"It was pure joy, pure happiness. To finally get your championship ring, it was just an unbelievable feeling," Jones said. "We’re still floating on cloud nine, it’s still an amazing feeling that doesn’t feel like it was real. It was definitely like a cherry on top."
With the departures of Okafor, Jones, Cook and Justise Winslow for the NBA, the Blue Devils reloaded with a large freshman class. Those newcomers—Brandon Ingram, Chase Jeter, Derryck Thornton, Luke Kennard, Antonio Vrankovic, Justin Robinson and Brennan Besser—were part of the audience Tuesday watching their teammates and predecessors enjoy the fruits of the past season's labor.
Krzyzewski and his staff may be hoping Duke's fresh faces were also planting the seeds for their own plans to return to meet Obama again one more time before he leaves office.
"For the coaches to bring the young guys here to experience it is something that no other school really does either. It’s motivation," Jefferson said. "It was a good close to a book. It was amazing to finally say, ‘We did this.’ We have our rings, we met the president and when we get back to school, it’s about business."