SAN DIEGO — The most surreal moment of Tyler Zeller's three days in San Diego came not long before tipoff Friday evening when President Obama strode into the trailer serving as the Tar Heels' makeshift locker room aboard the USS Carl Vinson.
"I tried to introduce myself, and he was like, "Oh, I know you," Zeller said. "It's a humbling experience when the president knows who you are."
Although Zeller had previously met President Obama after the Tar Heels won the 2009 national championship, that clearly wasn't the only reason the Commander in Chief knew the 7-foot senior's name. Not only did the president refer to many of the North Carolina players by name, he also knew the strengths of each of their games by heart.
"It was kind of crazy he knew who most of us are," North Carolina forward Harrison Barnes said. "He said, 'Hey "Z," Good seeing you again. Just like in '09.' He said, Hey, John, go block some shots. Hey Harrison, go make some threes.' It was kind of cool to see he knew us and he was in touch. What can you expect from the president who does the brackets in March?"
For the president to attend the Carrier Classic definitely added to the spectacle of the new event. After meeting with both Michigan State and North Carolina at pregame, Obama delivered a Veteran's Day speech, then took his courtside seat next to the First Lady where he alternated between watching the game attentively and schmoozing with servicemen seated around him.
Perhaps North Carolina coach Roy Williams was the only Tar Heel not caught off guard by Obama's knowledge of the sport and the program.
"I like a president who likes sports, loves athletics and loves college basketball," Williams said. "If some things had been going on that he felt were important enough, he would have skipped this, there's no doubt in my mind. But don't take this wrong, and I'm not trying to be disrespectful, but he's a basketball junkie. That's what he is."