WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama is much more than a casual observer of Baylor Lady Bear basketball, he's obviously a fan.
"This team just sets a great example for girls everywhere as athletes, as scholars, as leaders in their community," said Obama, addressing the national champion Lady Bears and the crowd gathered for Wednesday's visit to the White House. "As a father of two daughters who are tall and beautiful just like them, it is great to have role models who can show them that women can be strong and bright and competitive, but also play as a team, that's a terrific blessing to my daughters. It's a terrific blessing for girls everywhere."
Of course, there was also the fact that Obama picked the Lady Bears in his NCAA bracket.
"I want to thank all the outstanding young women who are behind me and coach (Kim Mulkey) for making my bracket look good, at least on the women's side. I had Baylor over Notre Dame, but I have to say I wasn't the only one. It wasn't that hard."
Before the session in the East Room, which was broadcast over the internet by ESPN3, Obama met separately with the team and had brief one-on-one conversations with each of the players.
"I was just expecting him to shake everybody's hand and keep it moving," said rising senior forward Destiny Williams. "But he knew names and cities (where we were from), so he showed that he actually cared about us."
An emotional Shanay Washington embraced the President and got emotional in the private Blue Room session with the players and coaches.
"I thought it was touching when Shanay Washington got very emotional," said Mulkey, who was making her second trip to the White House in seven years. "I think she caught us all off guard, but just hugging him and visiting with him, she really became very emotional."
Obama also had a touching moment with Lady Bear fan Haley Klepper of Waco, an 11-year-old girl who has a rare mitochondrial disease. Haley and her family made the trip to the nation's capital to join the team on the special day.
"The Lady Bears also made a difference in one little girl that is so special that the team brought her along with them today," President Obama said. "Haley is as brave as she can be, she's just gone through some struggles. But when the team found out about Haley and all the stuff that she goes through every day . . . they immediately took her under their wings."
After a brief speech, Obama was presented with a Lady Bear jersey and basketball and then kneeled for pictures with the Klepper family.
"The neat thing was the players didn't know that the Kleppers were invited," Mulkey said. "And when they saw Haley and the applause that our own team gave to Haley and the Klepper family was so touching to me. But then for (Obama) to spend time with her, take pictures with her family, it was genuine. You could just feel it."
After touring the White House and meeting with Obama, the Lady Bears also toured the Capitol Building and were welcomed by Texas U.S. Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison and John Cornyn, Texas U.S. Representatives Bill Flores, Louie Gommert and Ralph Hall and South Carolina Representative Trey Gowdy, a Baylor graduate.
"Something like this never gets old," Mulkey said. "It's a historical moment anytime you get to meet the President, let alone get his undivided attention. He was gracious today. I valued the time that he spent with all of the players."