WASHINGTON — President George W. Bush paid tribute to the Celtics’ 17th NBA championship team during a 15-minute ceremony this afternoon at the White House.
“So, ‘Celtic Pride’ is back,” Bush said, speaking before a crowd of about 250 in the East Room. “Welcome to the Boston Celtics team that has brought great pride to Boston.”
Most of the Celtics team participated in a tour of the White House and in the presentation. Sam Cassell, Eddie House, and James Posey (now with New Orleans) were missing because of personal reasons, according to director of media relations Jeff Twiss.
Bush joked he hadn’t seen so many Celtic fans in the area “since St. Patrick’s Day.”
The president said he got caught up in the spirit of unity that helped carry the franchise to the championship.
“I appreciate very much the use of the word ‘Ubuntu,'” Bush said during his often humorous speech. “I don’t know if you know what that’s talking about here. Probably most people outside of Boston don’t. It is an African word for unity that the [Celtics] declared when they broke from the huddle. I’ve been looking forward to saying that with a Texas accent:
“U-bun-tu . . . yeah,” Bush said to laughter and applause.
Bush said he had particular respect for the turnaround the Celtics made from the previous season, when they had the second-worst record in the NBA.
“It’s amazing how sports works, isn’t it?” Bush said. “At the beginning of the season, few would have predicted how it would have ended . . . The two-decade championship drought was pretty likely to continue. At least that’s what the experts said. There’s a lot of experts in life these days. You probably hadn’t noticed.”
He noted that Celtics ownership, along with general manager Danny Ainge, did an outstanding job constructing the roster, particularly by acquiring longtime stars Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, though he joked about their veteran status.
“In the offseason, [Ainge] figured out the need to bring in some new blood — or maybe some old new blood.”
Turning to Garnett behind him, Bush said with a laugh: “Well, old-er new blood.
Bush offered particularly high praise for Celtics captain Paul Pierce, who played through a knee injury in the Finals.
“Leadership comes in all different ways,” Bush said. “Playing hurt in a championship game is an ultimate sign of leadership. He won the MVP for the league finals, and that’s why the league calls him ‘The Truth.’ That’s why this team calls him the captain.”
Pierce presented Bush with an autographed basketball and jersey with the No. 43, signifying Bush as the 43d president.
Bush also acknowledged Celtic coach Doc Rivers.
“I know [Doc] somewhat, he’s a good man,” Bush said. “He brought character to the clubhouse, unity to team, and a championship to Boston.”
After the ceremony, Rivers said he introduced himself to Bush while playing a game in San Antonio in the ’90s.
“I had contact with him, but I didn’t know he would remember me,” Rivers said of Bush. “When I was with the Spurs, he was in front row – he was the governor of Texas — and I introduced myself and shook his hand. At the time it was a good experience for me.”
Asked about his political preferences, Rivers replied: “When you meet the president you meet president. You are not a Democrat or Republican when you come into this building, and that’s the way it should be.”
Bush noted that not only did the Celtics-Lakers Finals matchup revive a famous rivalry, but it ended up being one more memorable moment in a decade full of them for Boston sports fans.
“For baby-boomers like me, [Celtics-Lakers] was the reminder of a great basketball rivalry. Boston fans were screaming, ‘Beat LA,’ at the top of their lungs, and that’s exactly what they did in six hard-fought games. If you’re a basketball fan or a sports fan, that was really awesome to watch, wasn’t it? If you’re a Boston Red Sox fan it was doubly awesome to watch. If you’re a Boston Celtics fan, man, you’re in heaven!”
Perhaps the president’s best line of the day was his final one:
“I wish you well for the very next season,” he said. “Should you win it, you can find me in Texas.”
(Chad Finn of the Globe staff contributed to this report.)