Jeff Gravley

Jordan fits right in with this year's Medal of Freedom honorees

Posted November 22, 2016
Updated November 23, 2016

We have all played the hypothetical game of naming five people you would like to invite to dinner.

President Barack Obama filled his list as outgoing President with 21 honorees to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. It’s the highest civilian honor there is.

Hey, when you are a two-term president, you have earned the right to pick your favorites.

He mentioned how all of the 21 had made an impact on his life. “These are the folks that helped make me who I am,” the president said in his closing remarks.

WRAL sent me and photojournalist Brad Simmons to cover the event. It was my second Presidential Medal of Freedom ceremony. I attended the 2013 presentation when Carolina coach Dean Smith was honored. Health issues kept him from attending but it was still a powerful moment.

One of Coach Smith’s prized pupils was in this year’s class. Michael Jordan has had about every honor there is. But watching him throughout the ceremony, his face told how he felt. I don’t know if I have ever seen Jordan smile so much.

It wasn’t over the accomplishment, it was who he shared it with. One, his Coach Dean Smith, who Michael thought of as a second father.

The 21 in the class of 2016 are an incredible collection of talent to be among.

If you like sports, Jordan and Kareem could have run a mean pick-and-roll with broadcaster Vin Scully eloquently describing it.

Imagine the musical combination of Ross and the Boss. Diana Ross and Bruce Springsteen could have collaborated sweet tunes.

Superb acting? Check! Robert Di Nero, Robert Redford, Tom Hanks and Cicely Tyson could have filled the East room with their acting awards.

Need a laugh? Ellen DeGeneres would have taken the material written by "Saturday Night Live" creator Lorne Michaels and ripped up the room with laughter.

Although one of the most emotional moments of the entire presentation was when the president placed the Medal of Freedom around the neck of DeGeneres. Her eyes welled with tears. She was praised for her willingness to come forward and tell the world she is gay.

It was moving to see how each recipient reacted to the moment.

They were or are the best in their craft, and on this November day, they all were in the same room on the same team. Honored by the president and honored to be in the presence of greatness.

“There’s a reason you call somebody ‘the Michael Jordan of,” Obama said about the former Tar Heel. “The Michael Jordan of neurosurgery, or the Michael Jordan of rabbis, or the Michael Jordan of outrigger canoeing. They know what you’re talking about.”

After the presentation was over the winners were invited to talk to the media if they wanted to. Jordan declined but he rarely does interviews any more.

But at one point Tom Hanks, Robert Redford and Robert Di Nero were among the press. I was about two feet from the trio, and it was the first time I had ever seen them in person.

Was I a little star struck? Yep. It was a fitting finish to a day I’ll never forget.

This ole tobacco-priming, country boy from Oxford was in the White House watching 21 extraordinary people reach another highlight in their careers.

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