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5 NBA players who were awarded the US Presidential Medal of Freedom

Michael Jordan receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Michael Jordan receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom
Akshay Manwani

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the United States of America’s highest civilian honor. It is presented by the American President 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.

Although the medal was first handed out by John F Kennedy in 1963, only five NBA players have been deemed worthy enough of the award since then. Let's have a look at them.


#1 Bill Russell

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The NBA’s greatest champion ever, Bill Russell won 11 NBA titles with the Boston Celtics in his 13 NBA seasons between 1956 and 1969. He was also the first black head coach in the NBA, winning two titles as player-coach for the Celtics in 1968 and 1969.

Russell was granted the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Barack Obama in 2011. “More than any athlete of his era, Bill Russell came to define the word ‘winner’,” Obama said of Russell when handing him the honor. “I hope that one day in the streets of Boston, children will look up at a statue built not only to Bill Russell the player, but Bill Russell the man.”


Also Read: How many rings does Bill Russell have?

#2 Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

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Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is the NBA’s all-time leading scorer (38,387 points). He won six NBA championships, one with the Milwaukee Bucks and five with the Los Angeles Lakers. He was a six-time NBA Most Valuable Player and a record 19-time NBA All-Star.

Before joining the NBA, Abdul-Jabbar was a star player at UCLA, leading the Bruins to three consecutive NCAA championships. In addition to his legendary basketball career, Abdul-Jabbar has been an outspoken advocate for social justice.

“The reason we honor Kareem is more than just a pair of goggles and the skyhook,” US President Barack Obama had said when giving Kareem the honor at a White House ceremony in 2016. “He stood up for his Muslim faith when it wasn't easy and wasn't popular. He's as comfortable sparring with Bruce Lee as he is advocating on Capitol Hill or writing with extraordinary eloquence on patriotism.”

#3 Michael Jordan

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Rated as the GOAT by most fans, critics and peers, Michael Jordan won six NBA championships with the Chicago Bulls during his NBA career. He won five Most Valuable Player awards and appeared in 14 All-Star games. Jordan made the game a global phenomenon with his gravity-defying athleticism. His clutch performances, including his game-winning shot against the Utah Jazz in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals, rank amongst the best playoff moments of all time.

“Yet, MJ 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,” President Obama said of Jordan at the same ceremony where Kareem was honored. “He’s more than just a logo, more than just an internet meme. Michael Jordan is the Michael Jordan of greatness. He is the definition of somebody so good at what they do, that everybody recognizes it.”

#4 Bob Cousy

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The ‘Houdini of the Hardwood’, Bob Cousy was a teammate of Bill Russell in the latter part of his career. Cousy was a six-time NBA champion with Boston and led the league in assists in eight straight years. He was a 13-time All-Star and won the NBA’s Most Valuable Player award in 1957.

Cousy was awarded his Presidential Medal of Freedom at the age of 91 in August 2019 by President Donald Trump. “This acknowledgment allows me to complete my life circle,” Cousy said during the Oval Office awards ceremony. “I can stop chasing a bouncing ball. The Presidential Medal of Freedom allows me to reach a level of acceptance in our society I never once ever dreamed of.”

#5 Jerry West

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The Logo has been the last recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom in the NBA. West was given the honor by President Trump two weeks after Bob Cousy had been felicitated. As a player, Jerry West won one NBA championship with the Los Angeles Lakers in 1972, the team that also won an NBA-best 33 consecutive games in the same 1971-72 season.

West was also a 14-time All-Star and the first-ever Finals MVP in 1969. As general manager of the Lakers, he was the man behind the Showtime Lakers of the 1980s and the Lakers juggernaut of 2000-2002. On receiving the honor West said, “It never ceases to amaze me the places you can go in this world chasing a basketball.” But he also sounded modest when he said, “I swear my name is going to look like a misprint on this list.”

Edited by Raunak J

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