Shock players soak in history at the White House

An Unforgettable Encounter

Surely everyone from the Detroit Shock who attended Monday’s White House ceremony with President Barack Obama brought some special memories back to Michigan. But it’s unlikely any of them could match Sheri Sam’s haul.

Sam, whose only season with the Shock culminated in the 2008 WNBA championship, brought two items to the White House. One was a hardcover copy of Obama’s book, The Audacity of Hope, the other a commemorative edition of Rolling Stone dedicated to the 44th President.

“He actually took the time to sign Sheri’s two books,” said Cheryl Ford. “That was very impressive.”

The Shock’s first visit to the White House since 2004 (they did not come after the ’06 title) had a lot of pleasant surprises. Though the actual ceremony was just a few minutes, the entire 12 hours spent in Washington, D.C., was an unforgettable experience.

An ’08 reunion

The White House trip was a reunion of sorts as ‘08 Shock members Sam, Kelly Schumacher and Ashley Shields all made the trip; Elaine Powell was the only former player not in attendance. Schumacher, Shields and Katie Smith - who was coming from Saturday’s All-Star Game in Connecticut - flew independently of the rest of the team, which traveled on Roundball One, the Pistons’ private jet.

Bill Laimbeer also made his first appearance with the Shock since stepping down as head coach and GM last month. He was introduced with the President to begin the ceremony. It didn’t take long for the President to point out that, as a proud Chicago Bulls fan, honoring Laimbeer and Rick Mahorn seemed unimaginable to him during the heated rivalry between the Bulls and Bad Boys.

“If I knew I was President then, to think that I'd be inviting them to the White House is hard to take,” he said, getting a laugh from the audience. “But let's face it, these guys are winners. They always have been. They know how to win.”

The President also commended the Shock’s community involvement, including a visit to a local Boys & Girls Club immediately after landing at Dulles International Airport. Some of the children from that WNBA Be Fit clinic were invited to the ceremony on the White House’s South Portico. The President ended the appearance by trying to shake as many kids’ hands as he could before returning inside.

After the clinic and a stopover at the Westin Grand Hotel to change clothes and grab lunch, the Shock contingent arrived at the White House, touring the historic building for more than an hour. Among the items on display were George Washington’s sword and a sample from each President’s China collection. The walls were lined with famous presidential portraits.

“There was so much, I was just really enthralled by all the history,” said Sam, who called the Green Room her favorite. “Every photo we saw or chair or room had a story of a previous president from way back. I thought that was really awesome just listening to [the guide] tell the story and the history.”

“I loved the Blue Room,” said Taj McWilliams, who wants to model a vacant room in her home after it. “I’m going to have to do something like that.”

"That's why he's the leader"

Teammates found a rather striking resemblance between Taj McWilliams and a Time magazine cover of the First Lady, Michelle Obama.
Ryan Pretzer (Shock Photo)
McWilliams may be feeling a little more presidential these days after her teammates found a rather striking resemblance between her and a Time magazine cover of the First Lady, Michelle Obama. (Teammates teasingly called her “Michelle” the rest of the trip.)

Alas, the First Lady did not make an appearance Monday, nor the Obama daughters, Malia and Sasha, whom the President said, “have never known a time when women couldn't play professional sports,” to accentuate the WNBA’s positive influence on young women.

One member of the First Family did make an appearance during the tour - Bo, the family’s Portuguese water dog. “The little dog was cute. We saw him more than anybody else,” Ford said. “He sat down right in front of us.”

The White House likely has never been home to a bigger basketball fan than President Obama, but, understandably, not a great deal of time can be committed to honorary ceremonies. For most of the players, a handshake and a congratulatory word before the ceremony were the extent of their interaction with the President.

Yet, as many Americans on the Obama campaign trail could attest, it is remarkable how he can make you feel in that moment. He is direct, courteous, and absolutely sincere. “He’s got the two pumps down pat,” McWilliams said, “but he also doesn’t release until he’s done talking to you.”

“Very firm,” added Ford, who presented him with a basketball signed by the entire team. “Very good eye contact, too.”

“That’s why he’s the leader of the free world,” McWilliams said.

It was during that brief pre-ceremony exchange that the President signed the items Sam brought with her. “To Sheri,” he inscribed in the book. “Yes We Can! Barack Obama.”

Back aboard Roundball One, Sam flipped gingerly through the pages of the magazine. Sam, 35, was born in Lafayette, La., the youngest of eight siblings. She learned from her mother and grandmother how difficult life could be for black Americans in the time of Jim Crow.

“I heard the stories of picking cotton and not being allowed here and there,” said the Vanderbilt alum, the first member of her family to graduate from college, “and to actually be a part of that (ceremony) and meet the first African-American President and have him sign my stuff is priceless.”