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Inauguration impresses sports world

1/21/2009

WASHINGTON -- Muhammad Ali and Magic Johnson had prime seats
at the Capitol. LeBron James watched from a hotel room in Los
Angeles with his two sons. Across the country, coaches rescheduled
practices, and even the Super Bowl had to take a back seat Tuesday
to the inauguration of President Barack Obama.

"This day means a lot to inner-city kids, to African-American
kids, to everyone," said Cleveland Cavaliers star James, who
contributed $20,000 to Obama's campaign but couldn't attend the
swearing-in because his team is on a West Coast road trip.

"This day will last forever. It will be in books. It will be in
schools. It will be in classes. It will be on test questions. It
means a lot not only on this day, but for the rest of the days to
come and the years to come."

It takes a lot bring the sports world to a standstill, but there
was no ignoring the magnitude of the moment. Pittsburgh Steelers
coach Mike Tomlin pushed back his first pre-Super Bowl news
conference one hour so it wouldn't conflict with the inauguration.

"What we're doing here today pales with what's going on in our
nation's capital," Tomlin said.

Steelers principal owner Dan Rooney and his son Jim hand-delivered a game ball from the team's AFC Championship win to Obama on Monday, at a dinner Obama hosted for Arizona Sen. John McCain, the man he defeated for the presidency. Dan Rooney campaigned for Obama in Pennsylvania and surrounding states.

"He's a [Chicago] Bears fan first, he admits that," Dan Rooney said Tuesday, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. "But he's a Steelers' fan. He's said it, and all his staff, they're rooting for us [in the Super Bowl]."

The Boston Celtics, on the way to Miami for a road game, voted
to change their flight schedule and arrive in time for the players
to watch the ceremony from their hotel, even though coach Doc
Rivers offered to tape it for them.

"They said, 'No, we want to see it live. We think it's that
important,"' Rivers said. "One of them said, 'Twenty or 30 years
from now, I want to say I saw him speak live when he came in.' I
guess it will be like JFK in a lot of ways. I'm glad our guys have
the awareness of real life."

Guard Ray Allen upped them all, attending the inauguration in
person with Celtics owner Steve Pagliuca before rejoining the team
in Florida.

"It was so overwhelming. ... Sitting right in front of the
Capitol, all people kept doing was looking behind them," Allen
said. "You could see all the way from the Capitol building to the
[Washington] Monument. You could see millions of people. It was
amazing to watch."

Pagliuca said he was proud to represent a Celtics team that was
the first in the NBA to draft a black player and to hire a black
coach.

"It was people coming together; kind of a peaceful feeling came
over the crowd," Pagliuca told The Associated Press. "The crowd
had a hope and a joy. For that many people to be that peaceful was
very moving."

Shaquille O'Neal, an Obama supporter, could have attended the inaugural. But he said he would prefer to earn his way to the White House, according to The New York Times.

"I'll have my chance to meet him," O'Neal said Monday, according to the Times. "The easiest way to meet him right now is to just win."

As in win a championship?

"Exactly," Shaq said, according to the Times.

In Fairfax, Va., George Mason men's basketball coach Jim
Larranaga used "Yes, we can!" as his thought for the day when
practice began at 11:30 a.m. He pulled his players off the court 27
minutes later and took them to the locker room to watch the
swearing-in and Obama's speech. The players broke out in applause
several times, then returned to finish practice.

Even ESPN deviated from its sports programming to broadcast the
swearing-in, and ESPN Classic followed with a 10-hour "Breaking
Barriers" marathon featuring African-American athletes such as
Arthur Ashe and Jack Johnson and Grambling State football coach Eddie Robinson.

Sports metaphors were heavily in play. Louisville basketball coach
Rick Pitino, who campaigned for Rudy Giuliani during the primaries,
said he was thrilled by Obama's speech but noted the challenges the
new president is facing.

"I think, unfortunately, he's taking over a bad program with
bad players right now," Pitino said.

Kansas City Chiefs coach Herm Edwards watched the inauguration
under the same gloomy cloud millions of Americans share -- worried
that he's about to lose his job. His team went 6-26 over the last
two seasons.

"I think the country has been waiting for something like
this," Edwards said. "We should all embrace it, regardless of our
background -- religious, economic, heritage, it doesn't matter."

Baseball players found it easier to attend the inauguration
because their sport is out of season. Free agent reliever LaTroy
Hawkins, who had a seat about 100 yards from the Capitol, said he
thought of his grandmother, who died in 2006, as he watched Obama
take the oath. He said the sports world paid more attention than
usual to Obama's rise because of the high proportion of
African-Americans on many teams.

"It has to do with race," Hawkins said. "A lot of
African-American people feel now they can relate to someone in the
White House, and that somebody in the White House can relate to
them. He can understand their struggles. He can understand what it
means to be black in the United States."

New York Mets general manager Omar Minaya also had a good view,
not far from singer Alicia Keys.

"I hope all kids will look at today and realize how great a
country we have," said Minaya, who was appointed this month to the
President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports by outgoing
President George W. Bush.

On the other side of the world, tennis star Serena Williams
followed preinaugural events on television during the Australian
Open, although she felt it probably was wiser to tape the
inauguration rather than watch it live at 4 a.m. local time.

"I try to stay politically neutral, don't get involved in
worldly matters," said Williams, who doesn't vote because she is a
Jehovah's Witness. "For me, because I am black, seeing that
happen, I would be blind if I didn't take interest in it."

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.