Bill Russell, Stan Musial honored

Updated: February 15, 2011, 8:01 PM ET
ESPN.com news services

WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama recognized a pair of Hall of Fame athletes along with a former president and a civil rights hero Tuesday with the Medal of Freedom.

Boston Celtics star Bill Russell and St. Louis Cardinals great Stan Musial were among the 15 honorees recognized.

During a ceremony at the White House, Obama said the recipients represent "the best of who we are and who we aspire to be."

[+] EnlargeBill Russell
AP Photo/Carolyn KasterPresident Obama reaches up to place a Medal of Freedom on former Celtics great Bill Russell.

The Medal of Freedom is the nation's highest civilian honor, and is presented to people who have made important contributions to U.S. national security, world peace, culture or other significant public or private endeavors.

Russell, in addition to winning 11 championships with the Celtics, was the first black coach in NBA history and led the U.S. to an Olympic basketball gold medal in 1956.

During the ceremony, Obama said he hopes Boston will build a statue of Russell. "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," Obama said.

Current Celtics forward Kevin Garnett formed a strong bond with Russell during the 2007-08 season.

"When I think of Russell, I think of transcending," said Garnett. "Just how on, you take Bill Russell out [and] a lot of the young bigs don't even exist. I think if you take someone out of history a lot of us are not even here. Not only did he transcend on the court, but off the court, being pro-righteous in what he believed in and speaking up and standing up for that right.

"But [they were] different times back in the day, man, you know? I respect a lot of the [old players] just because of what they went through in order for us to be here today. So, Bill Russell is everything and I just want to say congratulations."

Musial was a three-time World Series champion and three-time National League MVP.

U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, a St. Louis Democrat, recalled watching Musial from the stands of Sportsman's Park as a boy, then getting to know him as an adult. He said Musial showed great courage in 1947 by welcoming Jackie Robinson, baseball's first black player, into the National League.

"Stan Musial is a national treasure," Clay said. "His remarkable life represents the very best of America."

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said Musial was not only the greatest Cardinal ever "but a great philanthropist who's used his notoriety to help others in need."

Among the recipients honored Tuesday were former President George H.W. Bush, businessman Warren Buffett and civil rights activist Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga.

Obama praised Bush for his more than 70 years of service to his country, saying his life is a testament to the belief that public service is a noble calling.

"His humility and his decency reflects the very best of the American spirit," Obama said.

The 2010 Medal of Honor recipients were announced in November. Other winners include:

• Angela Merkel, German Chancellor.

• John H. Adams, co-founder of Natural Resources Defense Council.

• Maya Angelou, poet and author.

• Jasper Johns, artist.

• Gerda Weissmann Klein, Holocaust survivor and author.

• Dr. Tom Little (posthumous), optometrist murdered on humanitarian mission in Afghanistan.

• Sylvia Mendez, civil rights activist of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent.

• Jean Kennedy Smith, founder of VSA, a non-profit organization that promotes the artistic talents of people with disabilities.

• John J. Sweeney, President Emeritus of the AFL-CIO.

Information from ESPNBoston.com student intern Greg Payne and The Associated Press was used in this report.