WASHINGTON -- Saying they had touched him in a powerful and personal way, President Barack Obama awarded the nation's highest civilian honor to 21 groundbreaking actors, musicians, athletes and others during a ceremony on Tuesday at the White House.
"These are folks who have helped make me who I am,'' Obama said as the celebration concluded in the White House East Room.
The awards had a major sports component, with Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Vin Scully among those recognized with the highest American civilian honor.
That led to plenty of sports moments at Tuesday's ceremony, including Obama noting that "MJ is more than just a logo. He's more than just an internet meme." Fittingly, Jordan was crying as Obama made the comment.
"There is a reason you call somebody 'the Michael Jordan of,''' Obama said. "The Michael Jordan of neurosurgery or the Michael Jordan of rabbis or the Michael Jordan of outrigger canoeing. Everyone knows what you're talking about.''
The president also had an eloquent description of Scully, saying, "You hear the crack of the bat. You've got the crowd singing in the seventh-inning stretch. And you've got the voice of Vin Scully."
Among those also getting the Presidential Medal of Freedom were actors Tom Hanks, Robert De Niro, Robert Redford and Cicely Tyson.
Bruce Springsteen and Diana Ross were recognized for their music.
Other honorees included philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates and comedian Ellen DeGeneres.
Obama said the people receiving the medal helped push America forward and inspired millions around the world. The White House said the president and his staff spend time considering a variety of candidates for the award, but ultimately, it's the president's decision.
The award recognizes especially meritorious contributions to the national interests of the United States, to its culture or to other significant endeavors.
Posthumous honors went to Native American advocate Elouise Cobell and Rear Adm. Grace Hopper.
Others receiving the award included: Richard Garwin, an inventor and polymath physicist who made pioneering contributions to the nation's defense; Frank Gehry, one of the world's leading architects; Margaret H. Hamilton, a mathematician and computer scientist; Maya Lin, the designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial; Lorne Michaels, producer of "Saturday Night Live''; Newton Minow, a former Federal Communications Commission chairman devoted to numerous public and charitable causes; and Eduardo Padron, president of Miami Dade College.
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.