President Obama gave the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 21 Americans this week. The distinguished and diverse group included architect Frank Gehry, media personality Ellen DeGeneres, and actors Robert De Niro and Robert Redford. Obama, the first basketball president (we’ve had a lot of golf presidents), awarded two hoop stars the medal. Probably the two greatest basketball players of all time in Michael Jordan and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. (These two haven’t always agreed on things.) Obama singled out Kareem by encapsulating his greatness in a telling anecdote.
“Here’s how great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was,” the president said. “1967. He had spent a year dominating college basketball. The NCAA bans the dunk. They didn’t say it was about Kareem, but it was about Kareem. When a sport changes its rules to make it harder just for you, you are really good.” Abdul-Jabbar’s legacy as a tireless worker for civil rights is at least as large as his basketball reputation, even though he remains the leading scorer in NBA history. His perfectly named autobiography, Giant Steps, is a marvel.