Jerry West becomes the second ex-NBA player to receive nation’s highest civilian honor

Former NBA basketball player and general manager Jerry West speaks after receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Donald Trump, in the Oval Office of the White House, Thursday, Sept. 5, 2019, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

By Joel Alderman

Quick. What do Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Bob Cousy, and Jerry West have in common?

Answer: They are the only ex- NBA players to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. The mythical team was completed Sept. 5th when the 81-year old West received the Medal from President Trump in a ceremony in the Oval Office of the White House.

Three other basketball figures have been so honored, but not as players. John Wooden, Pat Summitt, and Dean Smith all made their marks as coaches.

Cousy, 91, is the oldest of the five. He received his medal last month.

Here is the “team.”

Jerry West, now age 81 (from Pres. Trump, 2019)

He played in the Rome Olympics in 1960, was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame in 1980 six years after he retired from the NBA in 1974 following a 14-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers. He finished with 25,192 points in 932 games.

As a player West was known as “Mr. Clutch” and was an NBA All-Star for every one of his 14 seasons as a pro. After his playing days he was coach of the Lakers for three seasons, before moving to the front office where he signed Magic Johnson, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. West was inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 1979.

Many fans today are not aware that the NBA logo is supposedly based on West dribbling a ball against a red-and-blue background.

Trump said West “richly deserved” the medal, citing the West Virginia native’s years as a decorated player, executive, and supporter of the nation’s war veterans.

Almost simultaneously with receiving the award, West gained a daughter-in-law. His son, Jonnie, an executive with the Golden State Warriors, was married on Sept. 7th to the five time LPGA Tour champion Michelle Wie.

Bob Cousy, now age 91 (from Pres. Trump, 2019)

Only two weeks prior to West the president awarded a similar medal to the former Boston Celtics and Holy Cross star Bob Cousy, a 13-time N.B.A. all-star. Coincidentally, West and Cousy frequently opposed each other on the court, Cousy a Celtic and West a Laker.

Cousy, when he received his award last month, proclaimed that Trump was “the most extraordinary president in my lifetime.”

In what may be meant to get Cousy off the political hook for Cousy’s comment, Boston Globe sports writer, Dan Schaunessy, pointed out that the word has a dictionary definition of “very unusual or remarkable.”

He then added “Would anyone disagree that Trump is “very unsusual?”

That may be stretching a point, but nevertheless, Shaughnessy sought to get the Cooz’ version of whether “extraordinary” was intentionally vague.

He quoted him as replying that “the haters can put whatever connotation to it they want and the people on the other side can also do so. That’s exactly what I had in mind, so this way everybody can put whatever connotation they want to it.”

Or perhaps, in other words, “no harm, no foul.”

Bill Russell, age 85 (from Pres. Obama, 2011)

Although the Medal of Fredom was established by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, it was not until 2011 that it was given to an ex-basketball player.

The first hoop immortal to receive the Medal was Bill Russell in 2011. He played in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics. It was bestowed on him by Pres. Barack Obama. Russell and Cousy are the only former teammates to receive the medal, though not at the same time.

In the spring of 1966, he was named the first black coach in a major professional sport in the United States. For three seasons he was a player coach with the Boston Celtics.

Michael Jordan, now 56 (from Pres. Obama 2016)

Known simply as MJ or just Michael, he received his Medal of Freedom in 2016 from Barack Obama, an acknowledged basketball junkie. He took time off from his basketball career to pursue a dream to become a major league baseball player. He spent better than a year in the minors but did see action in a couple of major league exhibition games. He is the third-richest African-American behind Robert F. Smith and Oprah Winfrey.

According to CNN, Jordan is giving $1 million to the Bahamas relief effort.

“I am devastated to see the destruction that Hurricane Dorian has brought to the Bahamas, where I own property and visit frequently,” Jordan said in a tweet from his manager. “My heart goes out to everyone who is suffering and to those who have lost loved ones.”

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, now 72 (from Pres. Obama, 2016)

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was recognized with the nation’s highest civilian honor in 2016 when President Barack Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

“The reason we honor Kareem is more than just a pair of goggles and the skyhook,” Obama said at the White House ceremony. “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.”

Prior to his NBA career, Abdul-Jabbar led UCLA to three consecutive national championships from 1967-69. He also was named college player of the year each time. He was then known as Lou Alcindor.

Abdul-Jabbar went on to achieve 19 NBA All-Star selections, six MVP awards, six championships and 38,387 points — the most in league history.

The Medal “Team”

Veteran basketball fans can fantasize about a team of Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul- Jabbar, Michael Jordan, Bob Cousy, and Jerry West. It’s a group of distinguished American athletes that is probably unmatched. It would win a lot of basketball games. More importantly, its legacy should become an inspiration.

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