Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to singer Diana Ross Tuesday.

Barack Obama presents the Presidential Medal of Freedom to singer Diana Ross Tuesday. Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

Obama Awards Presidential Medals of Freedom

Innovators of sport, technology and the arts received the highest civilian honor Tuesday.

President Obama on Tuesday awarded 20 Presidential Medals of Freedom, recognizing leaders in activism, culture, technology and sports. The ceremony, which Obama said he "always loves" doing, was the final one of its kind for his presidency.

Obama has awarded more Medals of Freedom than any previous president, according to an analysis by the Washington Post. The current White House occupant has given out 114 medals, 28 more than the next-closest presidents (Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton).

"Everybody on this stage has touched me in a very powerful, very personal way,” Obama later said. “These are folks who have helped make me who I am.”

Those honored included basketball stars (the president's favorite sport)—Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Michael Jordan. Abdul-Jabbar's medal is the second official Obama administration honor bestowed on the six-time all-star, as he was selected by the State Department as a Global Cultural Ambassador in 2012. Obama also referenced Abdul-Jabbar's faith, saying "he stood up with his Muslim faith when it was uneasy or popular."

Jordan's accomplishments -- six NBA titles, two Olympic gold medals and five NBA MVP awards -- and status as the greatest NBA player in the history of the league have contributed to his stature. Jordan remains one of the most famous people in the world and Obama noted that Jordan's stature has defined the best of anything.

He is more than just a logo, more than an internet meme. More than just the charitable donor. There is a reason you call somebody "The Michael Jordan of..." "Michael Jordan of neurosurgery" or "Michael Jordan of Nebraska" or "Michael Jordan of Alaska." They know what you are talking about because Michael Jordan is the Michael Jordan of greatness.

Elouise Cobell and Grace Hopper received the awards posthumously for their contributions in advocating for native American rights and advances in computer programming and development, respectively. Cobell, who died in 2011, led a 15-year class action lawsuit against the government on behalf of 500,000 American Indians claiming the United States incorrectly accounted for the income from Indian trust assets. Cobell v. Salazar, the legal challenge to the management of American Indian trust regarding natural resource leases, was settled in 2009 for $3.4 billion. Cobell, according to the White House, is considered "an advocate for Native American self-determination and financial independence" and she "inspired Native American women to seek leadership roles in their communities." Cobell's son Turk Cobell accepted the medal.

Rear Adm. Grace Hopper was a groundbreaking computer scientist who was one of the first to program computers in the 1940s. Hopper joined the Navy during World War II and worked on programming the Harvard Mark I computer. In a field that remains male-dominated, Hopper continued her work on UNIVAC I, the first large-scale electronic digital computer in the late 1940s. Hopper, who died in 1992, invented the first compiler for a computer programming language and was integral in developing machine-independent programming languages, which lead to first high-level computer programming languages. Deborah Murray accepted the medal on behalf of Hopper.

Other Tuesday recipients of the Presidential Medals of Freedom were:

  • Comedian and actress Ellen DeGeneres
  • Actor Robert De Niro
  • Physicist Richard Garwin
  • Philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates
  • Architect Frank Gehry
  • Actor Tom Hanks
  • Artist Maya Lin
  • TV producer Lorne Michaels
  • Former FCC Chairman and lawyer Newt Minow
  • Educator Eduardo Padrón
  • Actor and filmmaker Robert Redford
  • Singer and actress Diana Ross
  • Baseball broadcaster Vin Scully
  • Singer-songwriter Bruce Springsteen
  • Actress Cicely Tyson

DeGeneres caused a minor stir on Twitter Tuesday when she forgot to bring her identification and was not allowed to enter the White House initially. She eventually got in and Obama noted her contribution to culture, saying "Ellen counters what too often divides us, with the countless things that bind us together, inspires us to be better, one joke, one dance at a time."

Watch the full ceremony below or read about the recipients here:

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