Thunder and Thunder Fellows Tour of the White House

By Nick Gallo | Broadcast Reporter and Digital Editor | okcthunder.com

Photography by Alex Dawson, Bree Maxwell and Zach Beeker

Thunder Fellows visit the White House

WASHINGTON DC — Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s tresses brushed the bottom of a decades-old chandelier. Mike Muscala slipped under a 6-foot door frame, hitting the original exterior wall of the White House as he walked through an underpass. In front of the famous South Lawn, however, players crane their necks upwards to get a full glimpse of ‘the people’s house’.

Kicking off the Thunder’s trip this week to Washington, DC, the traveling group – including players and coaches – traveled to the White House on Tuesday. Nzinga Collins, 14, and Reece Robinson, 15, joined the team, two of the Thunder Fellows highlighted in “Seeds of Greenwood,” a June 2022 film produced by OKC Thunder Films that documented the first year of the team. innovative after-school program in Tulsa.

A century after the Tulsa Race massacre, the film explores how the current generation of black high school students in Tulsa are planted and nurtured in the fertile soil of historic Greenwood. The program curriculum includes data science and coding with networking opportunities in the sports and entertainment industries. The film follows the birth of Thunder Fellows and the inspiring journeys of the inaugural class students.

“They (Collins and Robinson) are great representatives and ambassadors for this program,” said Thunder head coach Mark Daigneault. “We are incredibly proud of the program and especially proud of the kids who represent it and for them to be there with us today was awesome.”

On Tuesday, Collins and Robinson took part in a partial screening of the film attended by Thunder players and White House staff. Then there were discussions about the film and a variety of political issues between players, fellows and White House staff, ranging from education to healthcare to criminal justice.

“We always talk about growing as basketball players, but the best growth in life is as a human being. Seeing these kids transform in such a short time is special,” said Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who had a lot to learn as a Canadian national. “They have a bright future and I’m happy to be part of this program.”

“It was really cool to have our voices heard and to be able to have an open discussion about different things that we see,” added rookie guard Jalen Williams. “It was cool that they wanted to hear from us and it was cool that we got to give our opinion as well.”

Prior to the screening and discussion, the Thunder moved through the East Wing of the White House on a historic tour, passing through hallways that Presidents and first families have used since the construction of the wing in 1902. The east wing traditionally hosts social gatherings like the Easter egg roll, 4th of July festivities, state dinners, and championship celebrations.

The Thunder’s tour began at the White House Family Theater, which was converted into a dressing room in 1942. There, the team was briefed on countless features of the White House by a few Secret Service personnel who are part of the 200+ member team that services the 55,000 square foot facility. The President, First Lady and their children and grandchildren all have Secret Service details, and so does the Vice President and his family. On Tuesday, the Thunder also had their own detail.

“It’s really amazing. I never thought I would be here at the White House,” Collins said with a smile. “I would like to be president, so vote for me in 2044.”

As the Thunder awaited a ‘movement’ from First Lady Jill Biden’s Secret Service from one part of the White House to another, Thunder forward Kenrich Williams, who likes to stay out of social media and the limelight ramp, asked a very on-mark question. He was curious if there was anywhere on the grounds of the White House where presidents could have privacy. The answer: only upstairs in the upper floors of the residence.

Once given the “green light”, the contingent of more than 60 members of the Thunder organization walked through a hallway of iconic photos of former presidents and into the Vermeil room where portraits of first ladies are displayed. Then it was in the White House Library, the Roosevelt Room and the China Room – where dishes from presidents down to George Washington are displayed in display cases on the wall.

Thunder players took selfies and documented their journey through the East Wing, but nowhere were more photo ops than back outside, in front of the stately and precisely manicured South Lawn that lies pours towards the Washington Monument. Even with a regular drop of fresh rain, Thunder players made sure they had the full view and understood everything. They were truly in the most prestigious building in the country, an experience rarely granted but humbly accepted.

“We’re in the season and the games are emotional and that narrows your reach and those types of experiences broaden it,” Daigneault said. “It’s important to be able to put those life experiences into the larger context of our guys’ lives and experiences as players.”

“There are a lot of things we try to do to develop the whole player and the whole person,” said Will Dawkins, vice president of basketball operations for Thunder. “It was a great opportunity to talk about things that are important to them and important to the community and bring them to the White House and have discussions about it. It’s a good day when you talk about developing a person’s complete profile.

Back inside, Muscala ran her hands along the stone walls built in 1792 and having survived the War of 1812, a fire in 1929, and the wear and tear of old age. Most of the White House underwent a massive renovation in 1952, but in 1973 a special addition was made to the basement – a one-lane bowling alley. Thunder ninepin aficionado Tre Mann rated up to 300 he could bowl in the underground lane. His teammate Aaron Wiggins reminded him that the tight confines would be like a game on the road for him, not the familiar lanes he’s used to in Oklahoma City.

The last stop on the tour before the screening and discussion was upstairs in the Blue Room, where players peeked through incredibly thick glass to get a glimpse of the West Wing. In the East Room, players stood apart as White House staff prepared for a visit from tribal leaders from around the country for Tuesday night’s celebration of Native American Heritage Month, an event Lindy Waters III of the Thunder attended.

Before everyone left the lobby and headed back downstairs, Collins and Robinson were standing outside the Blue Room, where the presidential seal hangs just above the door. Alongside them was Thunder Fellows Executive Director Cedric Ikpo. They had to sneak together in one last selfie, under this iconic emblem, to document the gargantuan journey from the ideation of the Thunder Fellows program in the summer of 2020 to a visit to the White House just over two years and a first movie. later.

“Coming here today and being called by name by people who work so high, it was motivating to see me here one day,” Robinson said. “It was an amazing experience. I didn’t expect this movie to take me this far to see the White House.

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