Legendary college basketball coach, John R. Wooden received the nation’s highest civilian honor when he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the White House on July 23, 2003. Coach Wooden was the mastermind behind 10 national championships at UCLA and was the first member to be inducted into the college basketball Hall of Fame as both a player and coach.
The Presidential Medal of Freedom is given annually to individuals of, “significant public or private accomplishment” and recognizes “exceptional meritorious service.” The medal was established by President Harry S. Truman in 1945 to recognize notable service in the war. In 1963, President John F. Kennedy reintroduced it as an honor for distinguished civilian service in peacetime.
In recent years, Nancy Reagan has been honored with the award, while Hank Aaron, Jackie Robinson and Arthur Ashe have also been singled out with the honor.
This unprecedented honor to Coach Wooden began some three years ago by a former player that was under his guidance at UCLA from 1974-76, Andre McCarter. “Everybody (who won the award) did something important for people,” McCarter told the Los Angeles Times. “I was thinking, look at all the people affected by Coach.”
McCarter, who happens to be the model for the defensive figurine on the Wooden Award trophy, collected more than 30 letters from players who had played for Wooden during his 27 years in Westwood. He then sent the letters, along with a formal request to honor Wooden with the Presidential Medal of Freedom, to Washington D.C. in 2000.
After a three-year campaign by McCarter, Coach Wooden received a call from the White House stating that he had been chosen to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Coach Wooden told the president’s office that unless they sent him a letter by the following day, he would consider the call a prank. The next day the letter arrived and Coach was even more stunned, because it was all true.