White House Honors Sports Legends With Medal of Freedom Award

Two legendary sports figures were among the 16 recipients of this year's Presidential Medal of Freedom award at the White House on Wednesday.

Among the famous names like Oprah Winfrey, Bill Clinton, Arturo Sandoval, and civil rights pioneer Bayard Rustin, baseball legend Ernie Banks and legendary University of North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith made for a proud day in  sports history.

Smith was one of the most successful college coaches of our time, winning 78% of his games. But more than that, 98% of his Smith's student-athletes went on to graduate from college.  Among them, the legendary Michael Jordan.

President Obama lauded his achievements as a coach, and as a man. "He was the pioneer who popularized the idea of pointing to a passer. After a basket, players should point to the teammate who passed them the ball."

The president also made mention of Smith's efforts to integrate the game of college basketball during his early years as a coach.

Suffering from Alzheimer's disease, now at 83, Smith wasn't able to accept his award in person. His wife Linnea Smith, assistant coach Bill Guthridge and current UNC head coach Roy Williams accepted on his behalf.

The love for this Carolina coach was felt by all who know the man, and his life's work.

Coach Dean Smith in the 80s with Michael Jordan.
Baseball Hall of Famer, Ernie Banks (aka Mr. Cub) was also awarded the Medal of Freedom honor.

His credentials are astounding.   He was an MLB shortstop for an incredible 19 seasons on the National League's (NL) Chicago Cubs team from 1953 through 1971, a National League All-Star for 11 seasons, and played in 14 All-Star games. He won back-to-back MVP awards and he led the league in home runs, twice.

With all his accomplishments, the statuesque retired player of baseball, turned businessman (owning a Ford car dealership) remains humbled.

Baseball legend, Ernie Banks talks to reporters after being honored with the
Presidential Medal of Freedom award.  Photo/CD Brown.

"What did I do? What did I do?", he answered when we asked him if he thought of himself as a role model for younger baseball players. Putting his storied career accomplishments aside, the honoree said he thought it was better and more recognizable just to "be nice to people". 

Taking the stage with other Chicagoans on the day (President Obama, and Oprah Winfrey), Banks said in a Louis Armstrong-like moment, "This is a great world. This is a great world."

"I'm just glad to be here in Washington", he added.

Banks is spending his retirement helping young people.  He told us he is working with the president on making sure more kids become interested in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) subjects.

When it comes to young children, Banks share that he often flips the script on children who ask for his autographs, often asking the children for their autographs instead.

"They are the future", he said.  "I ask them for their autographs because they are going to be famous one day, too."