(Alex Dawson | OKC Thunder)

'An Amazing Experience'

Thunder and Thunder Fellows White House Visit

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

Photography by Alex Dawson, Bree Maxwell and Zach Beeker

Watch: Thunder Fellows Tour White House

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s braids grazed the bottom of a decades-old chandelier. Mike Muscala ducked underneath a 6-foot door frame, touching the original outer wall of the White House on his way through an underground passage. In front of the famous South Lawn, however, players’ necks craned upwards to get a full look at “the People’s House”. 

Kicking off the Thunder’s trip this week to Washington, D.C., the traveling party – including the players and coaches – made a visit to the White House on Tuesday. Joining the team were 14-year-old Nzinga Collins and 15-year-old Reece Robinson, 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's  innovative after-school program in Tulsa.

A century after the Tulsa Race Massacre, the film explores how today’s generation of Black high school students in Tulsa is being planted and nurtured within the fertile soil of the historic Greenwood District. The program’s 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 inspirational journeys of students in the inaugural class.

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

On Tuesday, Collins and Robinson were a part of a partial screening of the film that was attended by Thunder players and White House staff. Afterwards, there was discussion of the film and a variety of policy issues between the players, Fellows and White House staff that ranged from education to healthcare to criminal justice. 

“We always talk about growth as basketball players, but the best growth in life is as human beings. To see those kids transform themselves in such a short amount of time is special,” said Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who had plenty to learn as a Canadian national. “They have bright futures and I’m glad to be a small part of that program.” 

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

Before the screening and discussion, the Thunder moved about the East Wing of the White House on a history-laden tour, passing the hallways that presidents and first families have used since the wing was constructed in 1902. The East Wing traditionally hosts social gatherings like the Easter Egg Roll, Fourth of July festivities, state dinners and championship celebrations. 

The Thunder’s visit began in the White House Family Theater, which was converted from a cloakroom in 1942. There the team was briefed on countless features of the White House by a few Secret Service staff who are a part of the 200-plus member team that serves the 55,000-square-foot premises. The president, first lady and their children and grandchildren all have Secret Service details, and the same goes for the vice president and their family. On Tuesday, the Thunder had its own detail too. 

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

While the Thunder waited for a “movement” by the Secret Service of First Lady Jill Biden from one part of the White House to another, Thunder forward Kenrich Williams, who likes to stay off social media and out of the limelight, asked a very on-brand question. He was curious if there was anywhere on White House grounds that presidents can have privacy. The answer: only upstairs on the top floors of the residence. 

Once given the “all-clear”, the contingent of 60-plus 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 onto the White House library, the Roosevelt Room and the China Room – where dishes from presidents all the way back to George Washington are displayed in glass cases on the wall. 

Thunder players took selfies and documented their journey throughout the East Wing, but nowhere were there more photo ops than back outside, in front of the majestic and precisely manicured South Lawn that spills down towards the Washington Monument. Even with a steady dripping of cool rain coming down, Thunder players made sure to get a full view and take it all in. They were really at 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 it narrows your scope and these types of experiences broaden it,” said Daigneault. “It’s important to be able to put these life experiences into the larger context of our guys’ lives and experiences as players.”

“There’s a lot of things we try to do to develop the whole player and person,” noted Thunder VP of Basketball Operations Will Dawkins. “This was a great opportunity to talk about things that are important to them and important to the community and bringing it to the White House and have discussions about that. It’s a good off day when you talk about developing the full profile of a person.” 

Once back inside, Muscala passed his hands along the stone walls that were built in 1792 and 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. The Thunder’s own nine-pin aficionado, Tre Mann, was gauging how close to 300 he could roll in the underground lane. Teammate Aaron Wiggins reminded him the narrow confines would be like a road game for him, not the familiar lanes he's used to back in Oklahoma City. 

The final 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 by as White House staff prepared for a visit from tribal leaders from across the country for Tuesday night’s celebration of Native American Heritage Month, an event that the Thunder’s own Lindy Waters III attended.

Before everyone left the through Entrance Hall and back downstairs, Collins and Robinson stood outside the Blue Room, where the presidential seal hangs just above the doorway. Alongside them was Thunder Fellows Executive Director Cedric Ikpo. They had to sneak in one last selfie together, under that 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 a little over two years and one film debut later. 

“Coming here today and being called out by name by people who work so high up, it was motivational to see myself here one day,” said Robinson. “It was an amazing experience. I never expected that movie would take me so far to see the White House.”