Bill Clinton photo

Remarks at the National Sports Awards Reception

June 20, 1993

Good evening and welcome to The White House, and where appropriate, happy Father's Day. I'm glad all of you could be here with us tonight to celebrate the tradition of sport in American life. Hillary and I are delighted to be the honorary cochairs of the first annual National Sports Awards and to pay tribute to those outstanding Americans rightly called "the great ones."

Frankly, I'm thrilled to meet these heroes of sport. And I have to say that of all the perks that have come along with being President of the United States, the best one was being able to play 18 holes of golf with Arnold Palmer this morning. Even if it turned out to be all downhill from here, I could still be on a high. I might say, I'm glad I didn't have to play one on one with Kareem or go 15 rounds with Muhammad Ali to justify the round of golf. [Laughter]

It's been said that the athlete does not embark upon a sport but upon a way of life. Tonight we honor five individuals not simply for their athletic superiority but for the special qualities of character and leadership that have earned them the respect and the admiration of our Nation.

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar led every team he ever played for to championships. From Power Memorial High School to UCLA, to the Milwaukee Bucks, to the LA Lakers, he dominated the court for the entire 20 years in the NBA that he played. And he's hailed by many fans and players alike as the greatest center ever to play the game. He led the Los Angeles Lakers to five championships. And his teammates used to call him E.F. Hutton. When Kareem talked, they listened.

When he retired in 1989, he had been a first team all-star 10 times, college player of the year twice, earned 6 world championship rings, 6 MVP trophies, and played more seasons, more games, and more minutes, blocked more shots, and with his elegant trademark "skyhook" scored more points than anybody else who ever played this game. But for all of us who watched him, we know he did something more: He brought a tremendous pride and dignity to a game that will be forever in his debt. And tonight we offer him our highest praise. Congratulations.

Muhammad Ali may be the most widely recognized athlete in the world. He captured the imagination of the world with his distinctive fighting style and with the exhilarating fights he took to places all over the globe. He was the first fighter in history to win the heavyweight title three times. He was a loud, proud poet who told the world he was the greatest and was poetry in motion when he floated around the ring. Sometimes when his opponents couldn't hit him, it was hard to tell whether he was boxing or doing ballet.

He was just as courageous and dignified and mesmerizing a challenger as he was a champion. And he's a man who has unfailing stood by his principles and his beliefs. It was written of him that he spoke of God before his fights; he spoke of man; he spoke of hungry children. He cared about the sick and the old. He raised the game to drama. And because he stood for something greater, the people who climbed upon their chairs for him felt that they stood, too, for something greater. Congratulations, Muhammad Ali.

Arnold Palmer revolutionized his sport. It's been said that when television discovered golf, the world discovered Arnold Palmer. Fans all over the world grew to love his unique style, his boldness, and his daring. To many he is the American ideal: the perpetual underdog falling behind and then charging down the stretch and tearing up the golf course. I can identify with that. [Laughter]

Who could forget the 1960 U.S. Open tournament, where before the final round he trailed in 15th place, and a reporter said he was no more in contention than the man operating the hot dog concession. In one of the most memorable examples of grace under pressure, he birdied the first 6 out of 7 holes and then went on to win the tournament. During the campaign, some people used to call me the Comeback Kid, but I think he deserves that title much more than I ever will. He won the U.S. Amateur, the U.S. Open, the Masters 4 times, the British Open twice, was named Athlete of the Decade in 1970. He is a remarkably gifted man. And we are all in his debt.

I must say, I saw today on the golf course that even today when he tees it up, Arnie's Army is as faithful and enthusiastic as when he marched through Augusta to win his first Masters. We thank him tonight for all he has given us, for all the thrills. And I can tell you that on the basis of a wonderful few hours today, he's just as much of a gentleman and a competitor in private as he always seemed to the public. Congratulations, Mr. Palmer.

Wilma Rudolph had to relearn to walk before she could learn to run. The 20th of 22 children, she suffered a childhood bout with polio, double pneumonia, and scarlet fever, which left her legs paralyzed. But with resilient spirit and undaunted determination, she defied all the expectations and beat the odds to become a great athlete. She was a remarkable star at a fairly early age, although she did not take up track until the ripe old age of 13. Two years later, she won a bronze medal at the 1956 Olympics. She had an extraordinary career at Tennessee State College. She went back to Rome in 1960 and became the first American woman to win three track and field gold medals at one Olympic games. Her trademark composure became familiar to people all over the word. And she became literally an international heroine.

After retiring from track, she continued to dedicate much of her time to working with young athletes. She did more than break world records. She broke barriers for thousands of women competitors and paved the way for those who have followed in her footsteps. Wilma Rudolph, you are a great one.

Our next honoree is not here, but I want you to know a little bit about him. There was a young pitcher new to the major leagues. He was facing a batter by the name of Ted Williams. "Ball three," said the umpire; and the pitcher walked halfway to the plate and screamed, "What was wrong with that pitch?" The umpire dusted off the plate; the young, frustrated pitcher wound up and threw; and once again Ted Williams hit it over the Fenway Park fence. The umpire walked toward the man and said to the rookie, "You see, son, when you throw a strike, you don't have to look to me; Mr. Williams will let you know."

During his 19 seasons with the Boston Red Sox, the Splendid Splinter earned 6 major league batting titles, 2 at the ages of 39 and 40; maintained a batting average of .344, with 2,654 hits, including 521 home runs. These statistics are awesome, all right, but they're even more incredible when you consider that Ted Williams lost most of 5 seasons and hundreds of hits and home runs because he wanted to serve his country. He left baseball twice, first to serve as a fighter pilot in Word War II and then to serve again in the Korean war. In 1941, he defied all the laws of baseball when he batted .406. No one has batted .400 since. And talk about grace under pressure, at his very last time at bat in 1960, he hit a farewell home

Ted Williams is a great athlete and a great patriot, and I'm proud to honor him tonight, as I know all of you are, for what he's done for his sport and for his country.

Each of you has honored your sport and your Nation and left a legacy of greatness. I hope these National Sports Awards become an American tradition that will honor the legacy of all those who participate. Today we must look to the future, the idea of service performed by young people all across America.

The funds raised by these awards and this weekend will enable young people dedicated to service to expand their own efforts in rebuilding our more troubled communities, in caring for those unable to care for themselves and transforming the lives of people and cities in need, and in the process, in transforming and improving their own lives.

Some of these young leaders and those who have mentored them into a life of service are here with us. And I urge all of you on the eve of our Nation's summer of service to go forward knowing that you are shining examples of what it means to be a real citizen in our country. You are welcome here, too, tonight. Perhaps there is no way better to honor the athletes tonight than by supporting young people who themselves are dedicated to helping their peers most in need. They are also great ones.

Although we are blessed with the presence of these athletes tonight, we are all, I'm sure, saddened by the absence of another champion, Arthur Ashe, an extraordinary man who lived by the words "thou shalt not close a door behind you." There will be more said about Arthur Ashe tonight at Constitution Hall, but I'm proud that his wife, Jeanne, is here with us tonight. And thank you so much for your presence.

In dosing let me just say that I have some people to thank tonight: those who have agreed to serve on the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, including the two cochairs, Florence Griffith Joyner and Tom McMillen, who is standing here and looking short with his friend Bill Bradley as Kareem is up on the platform. They will advise me and the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Donna Shalala, on ways to enhance opportunities for all Americans, not just the young, to participate in physical fitness and sports activities.

Finally, let me say to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, to Muhammad Ali, to Arnold Palmer, to Wilma Rudolph, to Ted Williams, and to all of you who are here tonight, I thank you for lending your dignity to this occasion and for your service to this country and for your embodiment of the best values of America.

Thank you very much.

NOTE: The President spoke at 6:12 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to tennis champion Arthur Ashe, who died of AIDS; Olympic track champion Florence Griffith Joyner; and former professional basketball players Tom McMillen and Senator Bill Bradley.

William J. Clinton, Remarks at the National Sports Awards Reception Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

Filed Under




Washington, DC

Simple Search of Our Archives