President Barack Obama awarded the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, to basketball superstar Michael Jordan and 20 others Tuesday.
A longtime basketball fan himself, Obama lauded Jordan at length for his legendary skills on the court, saying Jordan was so good that he became an icon of excellence.
With a smiling Jordan seated behind him, Obama told how Jordan had nearly cut off a toe with an ax as a 5-year-old, and wondered aloud what the world would have missed had he never been able to play. “Air Jordans might never have taken flight. I mean, you don’t want to buy a shoe with, like, one toe missing,” Obama said to laughs.
Instead, Obama recalled, Jordan went on to stellar achievements in college, in the NBA and on the Dream Team, the U.S. men’s basketball team in the 1992 Summer Olympics.
“Yet M.J. is still more than those moments, more than just the best player on the two greatest teams of all time: the Dream Team and the 1996 Chicago Bulls,” Obama said.
“He is more than just a logo, more than just an internet meme. He’s more than just a charitable donor or a business owner committed to diversity. There is a reason you call somebody ‘the Michael Jordan of’: the Michael Jordan of neurosurgery or the Michael Jordan of rabbis or the Michael Jordan of outrigger canoeing. They know what you’re talking about. Because Michael Jordan is the Michael Jordan of greatness. He is the definition of somebody so good at what they do that everybody recognizes it. That’s pretty rare.”
Other honorees at the celebrity-studded event included actors Robert Redford and Robert De Niro, singers Bruce Springsteen and Diana Ross, comedian Ellen DeGeneres and “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels.
“Today, we celebrate extraordinary Americans who have lifted our spirits, strengthened our union and pushed us towards progress,” Obama said, calling the recipients a particularly “impressive class.”
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is “presented to individuals who have made especially meritorious contributions to the security or national interests of the United States, to world peace or to cultural or other significant public or private endeavors,” according to a statement released by the White House.
Jordan, 53, seated in the second row onstage behind Obama, received loud applause from the East Room audience. He teared up at times during the ceremony.
Jordan, the owner of the Charlotte Hornets, was born in New York City but moved to Wilmington, North Carolina, when he a toddler.
A standout at an early age, he was offered basketball scholarships to schools including Duke, North Carolina, South Carolina and Syracuse. In 1981, Jordan accepted a basketball scholarship to University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
At UNC, he led the Tar Heels to a national championship in 1982. During his 15 seasons as a pro, Jordan won six National Basketball Association championships with the Chicago Bulls.
Obama, while addressing Jordan as one of the recipients, joked about Jordan’s role in the movies as well. “We have got innovators and artists, public servants, athletes, renowned character actors like the guy from ‘Space Jam,’ ” he said. Jordan starred in the 1996 movie that mixed live action with animation.
The Medal of Freedom Award, created by President John F. Kennedy, has been awarded by Obama more than 120 times during his two terms as president, more than any other president. When asked why, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest answered that the president was “aware of some more deserving awardees.”
“I think anybody who has had an opportunity to look through the list of recipients today would acknowledge that these are extraordinary people, people who have made extraordinary contributions not just to the United States, but to people of different nationalities all around the world,” Earnest said.
Obama appeared to relish his last chance at the ceremony.
“Part of the reason why these events are so special to me is because everybody on this stage has touched me in a very powerful and personal way,” said Obama.
“These are folks who have helped make me and think about my presidency. And what also makes it special is that this is America. It is useful to think about this incredible collection of people and realize that this is what makes us the greatest nation on Earth,” he added.
Vice President Joe Biden and first lady Michelle Obama also attended.