Bush honors Los Angeles Lakers at White House for NBA championships in 2000, 2001

Monday, January 28th 2002, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Kobe Bryant gave a team jersey, and President Bush gave it the old college try _ a quick tiptoe to bring himself somewhere near eye level with the Los Angeles Lakers' star guard.

``We can use him,'' Bryant joked afterward. ``We can use another shooting guard.''

Bush welcomed 13 Lakers plus coach Phil Jackson to the White House Monday, a belated congratulations for the NBA championships they won in 2000 and 2001. He thanked the team before an audience that included NBA commissioner David Stern and white-T-shirted children from Boys and Girls Clubs.

The president challenged the players to carry themselves as champions off the court, too, for the sake of children who want to be like them. He also thanked them for joining post-Sept. 11 efforts to ``fight evil'' by serving as mentors for inner-city children in Los Angeles.

``I want to thank the players who understand that with victory comes huge responsibility to encourage people to make the right choices in life,'' Bush said. ``To me that's the true sign of a champ.''

``This group showed the country and NBA basketball how to work together as a group,'' Jackson told the president. ``And I only hope that you and the Congress can do as much and the same.''

This time around, there was none of the Dennis Rodman-esque sulking that marked Jackson's April 1997 visit with the Chicago Bulls. These Lakers milled around happily on a riser before Bush arrived, impressed by the luster of the elegant East Room.

``It's been two years, and a different president, but it's a pleasure to meet as many of them as you can,'' said Rick Fox, all business in a dark suit and blazing red tie. ``To walk through and just see the former presidents on the wall in pictures, or look at the artifacts, ... it's educating.''

Bryant, in a belted leather jacket, stood to the side talking on his phone. Shaquille O'Neal claimed a seat on an upholstered bench beneath a portrait of George Washington, then relaxed against the wall, gripping an autographed gift basketball with one hand.

Robert Horry hammed it up with Mark Madsen, who was celebrating his 26th birthday _ and who stepped forward to oblige when Bush said he'd hoped Madsen would dance.

The president stopped him. ``I'm afraid the Secret Service might react violently if you did,'' Bush said.

At 6 feet tall, Bush didn't play the height game with Shaq as he did with Bryant. He simply craned his neck all the way, head aimed to the sky, as the 7-1 O'Neal handed over the basketball.

``I'm just happy to be here,'' O'Neal told the American Urban Radio Networks. He was an old hand at White House visits, he said; Bush is the fourth president he's met during his basketball career.

``It's a good honor for myself, for my family, for black people,'' O'Neal said.

After indulging a few autographs, first-time visitor Bryant pondered whether he'd be back next year. ``I would love to,'' he said.