Foggy Bottom was fairly quiet last week for Thanksgiving break, but while many students returned home, campus hosted some surprise visitors – President Obama and his family, wife Michelle and daughters Malia and Sasha – who attended the men’s basketball game against Oregon State Saturday at the Smith Center.
The first family, along with the first lady’s mother, Marian Robinson, sat in the front row behind the visitors’ bench during the game, supporting Oregon State head coach Craig Robinson, Michelle Obama’s older brother.
The president and his family arrived about 10 minutes prior to the game’s beginning, walking through a black curtain that shielded the southwest entrance to Smith Center from F Street. As they went to their seats, the president and first lady shook hands and greeted a number of students and spectators before being seated at the front of the section of Oregon State supporters.
“I’m pretty sure my mind just went blank,” said senior Lauren Matthias, one of the students who shook the president’s hand. “It was definitely an experience that I’ll never forget, the day I shook President Obama’s hand – at a basketball game of all places.”
Obama’s behavior during the game – a 64-57 Oregon State win – was relatively unexpressive, with the president mostly clapping during moments of Oregon State success but never cheering particularly loudly or visibly. He snacked on a bag of popcorn near the beginning of the game and occasionally signaled infractions, such as traveling calls, with his hands shortly after an official blew a whistle.
The first lady, on the other hand, made her allegiance to her brother readily apparent, showing concern and dismay as his team allowed the Colonials to pull within two points in the game’s final minute. She even left her seat at one point early in the game, rising to her feet with emotion during a physical play in the paint.
Both the president and first lady appeared entertained by the in-game entertainment during breaks in the action, applauding after performances by the GW cheer team and First Ladies dance team. President Obama became most enthused during the halftime show, rooting on senior Nate Andorsky as he narrowly missed the second of two halfcourt shots in the Jet Blue Shootout and pumping his fist as an eight-year-old boy made a layup to win the Dress Like a Colonial contest.
“I had a couple butterflies,” Andorsky said of his halftime performance. “Before the second shot I gave a little thumbs up and Barack and his wife actually gave me a thumbs up back.”
Senior Kyle Boyer, who drove back to D.C. from Pennsylvania for the game, was also on the receiving end of the Obamas’ enthusiasm, receiving an approving thumbs up from the nearby first lady after he was declared the winner of the Pita Pit dance contest during a timeout.
“The first family wasn’t really in my considerations when I started dancing but by the end of it I kind of realized the first family was there and then I think I gave the first family a glance,” Boyer said. “It’s kind of a blur, things happening so fast, people grabbing on you and cheering and whatnot.”
Michelle Obama appeared to closely follow the performances by GW’s spirit program, particularly and perhaps most appropriately the First Ladies dance team. In the post-game press conference, a reporter asked coach Robinson if the First Ladies’ name was disrespectful to his sister.
“Do they really call them that? That’s cute,” Robinson said with a smile. “See, when you’re from the south side of Chicago, it’s hard to be disrespected by things like that.”
Preparations for a presidential visit – only the second time a sitting president has attended a game at the Smith Center, with the first being President Clinton in 1995 – began earlier in the week when an advance security team came to the Smith Center to do preliminary security checks. Early Saturday morning, the day of the game, the U.S. Secret Service began sweeping the building and installing the necessary security measures, including metal detectors at entrances and a makeshift tunnel covering the entrance used by the first family that extended into the center of F Street.
All the while, GW administrators said they were not truly certain whether the president would attend until he actually showed up.
Once the Obamas arrived at the game, they were greeted in the tunnel by University President Steven Knapp and his family and posed with them for photographs.
Knapp said he “reconnected” with the president and first lady after having met them during previous trips to campus. Knapp presented Obama with a Colonials practice jersey, shorts and a basketball signed by all the members of the team.
“I think he appreciated getting that,” Knapp said.
At the conclusion of the game, coaches and players from both teams lined up to greet the president, first lady and first lady’s mother, all of whom leaned over a guard rail to shake hands. After GW head coach Karl Hobbs thanked Obama and his family for attending the game over the public address system – the first public acknowledgement of their attendance – the family exited through the same gate they entered, again greeting and shaking hands with those they passed.
“I think it helps us in so many ways, even outside of basketball,” Hobbs said of the president’s visit. “Not many universities have that opportunity.”
Many in attendance felt the same way.
“It’s definitely an ‘only at GW’ moment,” Boyer said. “I mean Secret Service brought the president in to basically sit next to the student section. That’s pretty cool.”