President Barack Obama on Wednesday named the 21 people who will receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom this year. Two of them come from the ranks of NBA royalty.
Hall of Famers Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar will receive the nation’s highest civilian honor, “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,” in a ceremony at the White House on Nov. 22.
“The Presidential Medal of Freedom is not just our nation’s highest civilian honor — it’s a tribute to the idea that all of us, no matter where we come from, have the opportunity to change this country for the better,” Obama said in a White House statement. “From scientists, philanthropists, and public servants to activists, athletes, and artists, these 21 individuals have helped push America forward, inspiring millions of people around the world along the way.”
The White House praised the 69-year-old Abdul-Jabbar, a six-time NBA champion and league Most Valuable Player who still stands as the leading scorer in NBA history some 27 years after his retirement, for his work as “an outspoken advocate for social justice,” which has included writing, documentary filmmaking and cultural criticism. In 2012, then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton named Abdul-Jabbar a global Cultural Ambassador for the U.S. Department of State, responsible for “engaging young people worldwide and […] using people-to-people diplomacy as a means to create opportunities for greater understanding.”
Jordan, a six-time NBA champion and five-time league MVP often referred to as the greatest player of all time, has remained wildly successful since the end of his playing career in 2003. The Jordan Brand shoes and apparel produced through his partnership with Nike sell like hotcakes year after year, and his status as the controlling owner of the Charlotte Hornets has made him a billionaire. After years of taking criticism for failing “to embrace the leverage he possessed as the nation’s most iconic athlete across the 1990s,” Jordan this year has become somewhat more vocal in speaking out on social issues.
Jordan responded to North Carolina’s House Bill 2 — a law passed in March by North Carolina legislators and signed by Republican Gov. Pat McCrory that reversed a Charlotte city ordinance expanding rights and protections for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people — by affirming that he and the Hornets were “opposed to discrimination in any form.” The NBA later pulled the 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte in response to the law’s continued existence. McCrory appeared to have lost his bid for re-election last week to Democratic challenger Roy Cooper, but the result remains up in the air as absentee and provisional ballots continue to be counted amid investigations of “irregularities” by the North Carolina Board of Elections and state Bureau of Investigation.
In July, Jordan wrote an essay responding to nationwide unrest stemming from multiple instances in which police shot and killed black men and officers were shot and killed. He also donated $1 million each to two organizations, the International Association of Chiefs of Police’s Institute for Community-Police Relations and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, to help “build trust and respect between communities and law enforcement.” In September, two days after a black Charlotte police officer shot and killed 43-year-old Keith Lamont Scott, Jordan issued a statement urging “peaceful demonstration and conversation” following nights marked by violence and unrest in the city.
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Abdul-Jabbar and Jordan are the second and third NBA players ever to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, joining Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell, who received the honor in 2010. They are the fifth and sixth people from the basketball world to receive the medal, joining coaches John Wooden, Dean Smith and Pat Summitt. Five of the six were awarded by Obama; Wooden’s came in 2003, from George W. Bush.
The White House will stream the event online on Nov. 22. Also among those to be honored: legendary broadcaster Vin Scully, who retired this fall after 67 seasons as the voice of the Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers. The full list can be found here.
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