WASHINGTON – Smiling from her wheelchair, a 10-year-old girl with a rare disorder watched from the front row at the White House as President Barack Obama congratulated her beloved Baylor University's women's basketball team on winning this year's NCAA championship.
Haley Klepper, of Waco, Texas, formed a bond with the Baylor Lady Bears during their 40-0 season. She was recently diagnosed with a disorder of the mitochondria, which power the body's cells, said her mother, Brenda.
"She's a Baylor bear," said Brittney Griner, Baylor's 6-foot-8 center. "Just seeing her fight every day and hear her story and what she went through, it makes us fight. It makes us want to go hard."
After Baylor Coach Kim Mulkey learned of Haley's condition from her father, the team agreed to mentor her and her sister, Hannah.
When Mulkey first introduced the little girl to the team, "there wasn't a dry eye in the locker room," she said.
"It put basketball in perspective, and it put some of (their) lives in perspective," the coach said. "There's more to life than just basketball, and sometimes we need to meet the Haleys of the world to realize that."
Haley interacted with the players regularly before games and during practices, her mother said. "Haley felt just wonderful because she was able to be part of a basketball team."
Mulkey said the team was excited when they found out Wednesday morning that their fan would be with them at the ceremony in Washington.
Obama applauded the team's volunteer work with Haley, taking time after the ceremony to greet her and her family.
"The kid almost broke down in tears," said Baylor forward Destiny Williams. Williams saw mentoring as a way the team gives back for the guidance they received as children.
"It was something we were raised with," Williams said. "Giving them a hug or a smile, you never know how long that can take that kid's life and how grateful they will be, so we do it out of care and love."
Obama called the NCAA champions a "dominant" team that scored more points than any team in women's college basketball history.
He thanked them for "making my (NCAA) bracket look good, at least on the women's side."
He added: "I picked Baylor over Notre Dame, but I have to say I wasn't the only one. It wasn't that hard."
The president helps coach his daughter Sasha's youth basketball team.