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Obama's arrival at Towson brings excitement to hoops game

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The Towson Center was transformed Saturday afternoon from a sleepy arena into a vibrant place to be for a few thousand Baltimoreans due to the presence of President Barack Obama and his family.

An announced 3,119 fans showed up to see Obama — and a basketball game between the winless Tigers and Oregon State, which is coached by Obama’s brother-in-law Craig Robinson.

Towson is still without a victory after a 66-46 loss to the Beavers, but it was a rare opportunity for the Tigers to play in front of the game’s most famous fan.

The First Family — Obama, First Lady Michelle, children Malia and Sasha, and Michelle’s mother Marian — entered the arena about 11 minutes before the 2 p.m. tipoff.

The crowd stood and cheered. The Towson band played “Hail to the Chief.” Obama, the first U.S. president to visit the Towson campus, shook hands with fans near courtside before taking his seat. And cell phone cameras continued to flash.

“It was a great atmosphere for a college basketball game,” said first-year Towson coach Pat Skerry, whose team stayed with the taller, more talented Beavers for most of the first half. “Hopefully, that's something long term that can become the norm here at Towson University.”

“It was great to see the community come out and support us,” added assistant athletic director Mike Harris, who began coordinating the visit by the Obamas with the Secret Service, as well as campus, state and Baltimore County police since last Sunday.

Obama and his family made similar trips to George Washington two years ago and Howard last season to watch Robinson’s team play.

It was an atmosphere the Beavers were clearly used to, not only from having made three trips to the White House, but also playing in the Pac-12.

“When a Pac-12 team comes to a place like this, it's a big game,” Robinson said. “On top of it, my relatives are also here and it makes it even bigger.”

They werent the only celebrities there. Among those in attendance were former U.S. Congressman Tom McMillen and actor Bill Murray, whose son Luke is an assistant on Skerry's staff. Bill Murray, who came into the arena after Obama, went over to chat up the president.

During halftime, Obama spent time poising for photos with Towson’s football team, which was introduced and honored for winning the Colonial Athletic Association for the first time and qualifying for the Football Championship Subdivision playoffs (the Tigers host Lehigh Saturday).

As the football players crowded around Obama, Towson football coach Rob Ambrose joked on a microphone feeding into the arena, “There's enough president for all of you” and kiddingly threatened to make his team run 45 minutes at practice later in the day if they didn't given the President some breathing room.

“We might have won a championship, but this might be the neatest moment of the season,” Ambrose said as his team's picture was taken with Obama.

Jeff Corden, an Oregon State graduate who moved to Baltimore 25 years ago, had tried to get his wife, Susan, and their son to go see the Beavers when they played in Washington the past two years.

“They didn't want to go,” Corden said after buying five tickets around 11:30 a.m. “But this is a great opportunity to see the Beavers — and the president.”

Jen Laatsch, a sophomore from Westminster, was there early as part of her duties as an usher at Towson athletic events. Laatsch said that she heard Tuesday from her supervisor that Obama and his family were coming “but we weren't supposed to tell too many people.”

Laatsch said she did a pretty good job keeping it quiet on campus.

“I told my mom and my brother,” she said.

Athletic director Mike Waddell said the school received word late last week that it was likely that the First Fans were going to make it to Towson for the game. Harris, who had helped coordinator Final Fours and Frozen Fours in other jobs, said that the Secret Service made his job easy.

“They just asked for simple things and all we had to do was help them,” said Harris, estimating that more then 150 law enforcement officers were part of the detail, including 30 of the 50-person campus police force.

Kevin Clark, one of Skerry's assistant coaches, has been through it before. As an assistant coach at George Washington in the early 1990s, Clark recalled a similar atmosphere when former president Bill Clinton showed up at the Smith Center when the Colonials played No. 1 Massachusetts.

“It's definitely just another game,” Clark said as he helped a couple of the Tigers warm up Saturday morning, ”but at the same time, it's a special game when you get to play in front of the president."

Skerry said he told his players at practice earlier in the week to focus on the Beavers, not the Obamas, come game time. It seemed to work for a while, but a 15-2 run for Oregon State at the end of the first half gave Robinson's team a 32-20 lead.

“We were excited,” said sophomore forward Marcus Damas, who led the Tigers with a game-high 18 points and 10 rebounds.

Some fans filtered in late into the second half to get a glimpse of Obama and his family, and the president shook hands and greeted many before he left the arena as a muffled cheer of “Four More Years” emanated from one corner.

Towson fell short of selling out the 5,000-seat arena for the first time since the Tigers hosted Michigan in 1997, but the hope is that they will eventually start to fill the facility for reasons based more on basketball.

Dan Benner and his wife Marilyn were two fans who planned to attend Saturday's game even before hearing that they would be joined by the Obamas. They were excited for another reason.

“We were coming to see the new coach,” Marilyn Benner said. “We're excited about him being here.”

don.markus@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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