If the Raptors pull off an NBA championship, would Canada's team get a White House welcome?

Would the most famous residence in the United States preserve tradition by opening its doors to the NBA champions, even if the winners are a Canadian team? Six experts on presidential protocol and White House event planning weigh in.

Presidents traditionally welcome NBA champions — but that's never been a non-U.S. team

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard, left, controls the ball during Game 5 of the NBA Eastern Conference final on May 23. U.S. President Donald Trump, right, holds a gifted team basketball at a ceremony honouring the 2019 women's NCAA basketball champion Baylor Lady Bears. If the Raptors, Canada's only NBA team, win the NBA Finals, it's unclear whether a traditional White House invitation would await the non-U.S. team. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press, Geoff Burke-USA Today/The Associated Press)

There's an elite American tradition at the White House: American professional sports teams, American champions and American medallists can be expected to score invitations from the American president to laud their athletic achievements.

All of which brings us to the Toronto Raptors. 

With a 3-2 series lead over the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals heading into Thursday's Game 6, Canada's only NBA team is within one win (knock on hardwood!) of becoming the first non-U.S. franchise to win a title.

That's close enough, it seems, for historians and experts on presidential and White House protocol to wonder: Would the most famous residence in the United States preserve tradition by opening its doors to the NBA champions, even if the winners are a Canadian team?

In case you're wondering, we've been here before — with baseball. But although George H.W. Bush welcomed 1992 World Series winners the Toronto Blue Jays to the executive mansion, the Jays' repeat triumph the next year resulted in no such visit during Bill Clinton's new administration.

The Golden State Warriors are pictured with U.S. President Barack Obama during a ceremony honouring the 2016 NBA champion team in the East Room at the White House. (Geoff Burke-USA TODAY/Associated Press)

Although the White House typically honours the NHL Stanley Cup winners, as U.S. President Donald Trump did by welcoming the Washington Capitals last March, it's an open question whether a Canadian hockey team would make the guest list. No Canadian NHL team has won a Stanley Cup since the Montreal Canadiens in 1993.

In 2017, players from the NBA champion Warriors snubbed an invite from Trump, who later rescinded their invitation. In 2018, Trump declined to invite the Warriors after they reclaimed the title.

For its part, Canada would be game to bestow a similar honour if the Raptors become champions. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's press secretary, Matt Pascuzzo, wrote in an email to CBC News: "All Canadians are behind the Toronto Raptors, and we are cheering them on every step of the way. The team has already made history, and we would absolutely be honoured to invite them to Parliament."

Whether that same hospitality might be extended by the Americans is less certain. Six experts spoke with CBC News about the likelihood that the Raptors — pending a win — might receive invitations to visit the White House. Their responses, edited for length and clarity, are below.

Lea Berman, White House social secretary under George W. Bush:

I never ran into a Canadian team winning when I was at the White House, but I'm sure the Bush administration would have invited them because they would not have wanted to leave them out. Not inviting them would have been discourteous, and they would have wanted to acknowledge both our close friendship with Canada and recognize the accomplishments of American team members.

The best reason to invite the Raptors to the White House? It's good retail politics — inclusive, friendly, a happy event. Why not do it?

Mark Updegrove, president and CEO of the Lyndon Baines Johnson Foundation: 

In 1992, U.S. President George H.W. Bush accepted a Toronto Blue Jays jersey from the Jays' Joe Carter, right, during a ceremony at the White House. (Ron Edmonds/Associated Press)

Look, I hate the fractured relationship between the U.S. and Canada, and how that's going. But the NBA has almost become a celebration of North American culture. Canada is an extension of that.

In the days of old, you probably had a social secretary and a chief of protocol saying the normal thing to do is invite them to the White House, and saying, "This is how we've done it in the past." But my guess is Trump will decide whether they're fans of his or not and make some determination.... My guess is it might be a political calculation because of the fractured relationship between him and Trudeau.

Jeremy Bernard, White House social secretary 2011-2015, under Barack Obama: 

U.S. President Donald Trump holds a New England Patriots jersey presented to him by coach Bill Belichick, left, and team owner Bob Kraft, right, during an event to honour the 2017 Super Bowl champions at the White House. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

To be honest, I don't know of a foreign team — even with the Olympics it was the U.S. athletes — to get an invite. I don't know offhand. There were so many events we did.

I think the fact that the Raptors are part of the NBA, I think that would make it seem like there's nothing strange that they would be invited to the White House. But there's no playbook for this.

Mike Purdy, presidential historian: 

In an alternative universe from the one we're living in, a president might, in the interest of international relations and honouring an athletic team, invite a foreign team to the White House. But Trump is unpredictable, and so it's anyone's guess on which version of Trump will show up if the Raptors win.

Under any other presidency, the chief of protocol would be significantly involved in both the decision and execution of such an invitation. Trump seems to view himself as a one-man public relations expert, and he would be the one to make such a decision whether to invite them and he would orchestrate the event to his liking.

Melinda Bates, director of the White House Visitors Office during the Clinton administration: 

NBA commissioner Adam Silver, left, was joined by former U.S. president Barack Obama at Game 2 of the NBA Finals between the Golden State Warriors and the Toronto Raptors at Scotiabank Arena in Toronto earlier this month. (Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY/Reuters)

An invitation to champion teams is extended by the White House at the discretion of the president. And in a normal White House, with a normal president, such an invitation would be graciously offered, even to a non-U.S. team.

I think if the Warriors win, and if several of the players announce they won't go if invited, as has already happened with other champion teams, the White House will announce they never even offered an invitation — so there!

Paris Dennard, staffer in the Office of the Public Liaison under George W. Bush: 

If the president makes an invitation to the Raptors, he would welcome those who want to come, because it's a great honour to be invited by the president of the United States and to be recognized on behalf of a grateful nation for your achievements. I would hope that if there are members of the team who do not want to go, they would just make it known privately and just not go.

When you look at the opportunity Toronto has — prematurely speaking, of course — if the president were to invite them, he would be inviting the NBA champions. So just because the team is in Toronto, it doesn't matter. They're still part of the National Basketball Association. And traditionally, the invitation has gone to the NBA champions as well as to the NFL champion, the NCAA champion or the Major League Baseball champion.

The president has a wonderful working relationship with Prime Minister Trudeau. And if there's an invite for the Raptors, you would expect the Canadian ambassador to be there.


Matt Kwong


Matt Kwong was the Washington-based correspondent for CBC News. He previously reported for CBC News as an online journalist in New York and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at: @matt_kwong


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