When Bill Russell was winning two NCAA titles, an Olympic gold medal and 11 NBA crowns, championship teams rarely received invitations to the White House. It certainly wasn't like earlier this month, when the Super Bowl XLV champion Green Bay Packers could boast about a future engagement at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
But as he usually did during his incomparable 13-year NBA career, Russell has gotten his due from the White House. The five-time MVP and the first black man to coach a major league team in the modern era was honored with 14 others Tuesday when he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Obama in D.C. Other honorees included Warren Buffett, poet Maya Angelou, baseball great Stan Musial and former President George H.W. Bush.
In addition to Russell's incomparable athletic accomplishments, the medal also was in recognition of his leadership for civil rights causes during a time when fans would cheer a black athlete when he played for their favorite team but voice a much different reaction if he tried to live in their neighborhood.
Times, of course, have changed, especially for the nation's youngest athletic generation, the Millennials, those born between 1982 and 2000. One should not think harshly of them if many of the conflicts involving race, sex and religion were settled long before they picked up a ball or competed in a race. They're judged mainly by how they perform in the arena, and it's been a memorable 12 months.
Skier Lindsay Vonn became the first U.S. woman to win gold in the Olympic downhill. Patrick Kane's overtime goal gave the Chicago Blackhawks their first Stanley Cup in 49 years. Pitcher Tim Lincecum helped lead the San Francisco Giants to their first World Series championship since leaving New York in 1958. Most recently, Aaron Rodgers and the Packers beat Ben Roethlisberger and the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first Super Bowl showdown between Millennial starting quarterbacks.
But how do the Millennials measure up with the previous six generations in U.S. sports? Are they in the same league as the generations of Babe Ruth or Joe Louis or Bill Russell? Which one is American sports' greatest generation?
Americans have been running, jumping and throwing since the early days of the republic, but let's start the conversation with athletes from the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, when golf's U.S. Open, the modern Olympic Games, the World Series, Rose Bowl and Walter Camp's first All-America football team helped inaugurate the modern era of U.S. sports.
Mack and McGraw, solid players in their own right, combined to win eight World Series as managers. Barrow was the general manager who helped construct the Yankees dynasty from 1921 to 1945. Rickey ended baseball's decades-old ban on black ballplayers by signing Jackie Robinson.
Heavyweight champ Johnson was the nation's first black sports star, although he alienated many whites with his refusal to bend to the racial mores of the era.
Phelps rules all Olympic generations with 14 gold medals. Until Mauer, no catcher had won a league batting title since 1942. Mauer has three. All four starting quarterbacks in the NFL's conference championships were Millennials.
No American generation of athletes is as good in so many sports.
No Millennial has been more publicized than LeBron, but this most physically gifted of basketball players still lacks an NBA title. His over-the-top announcement about joining the Miami Heat made him look horribly self-absorbed.
Losts knew how to win, particularly Thorpe, perhaps the greatest all-around U.S. athlete in history. The two-time Olympic track gold medalist was one of pro football's early stars and good enough to play baseball for McGraw's Giants.
Halas coached the Chicago Bears to six NFL titles but baited referees and was miserly with many of his players. Tilden won seven U.S. championships and dominated tennis in the 1920s but late in life he was imprisoned twice for inappropriate behavior with young boys.
Thorpe, too, ran afoul of rules, specifically the ultra-strict amateur statutes of the day. He was stripped of his gold medals after admitting he had accepted $25 a week to play minor league baseball before the 1912 Olympic Games. The medals weren't restored until 1982, 29 years after his death.
Lost ballplayers brushed shoulders with gamblers, most notably the 1919 Black Sox.
Blacks and women played little role in big-time athletics. Pro football was running on life support.
But there was more to Baby Boomers than chatter. Professor and author David Kaiser says this was a smart, well-conditioned cohort whose athletes competed far longer than previous generations. Jabbar, Ripken, Montana, Elway, Tom Seaver and Nolan Ryan blended lengthy careers with record-setting and championship performances.
Evert won 18 Grand Slam titles and joined the crusading King and the gifted Czech expatriate Martina Navratilova to give the U.S. a golden age of women's tennis.
Bird and Johnson resuscitated a listless NBA, whose championship games had been relegated to late-night taped broadcasts. Their Boomer-laden teams combined to win eight NBA titles in the 1980s.
Phil Jackson, Tony La Russa, Bill Belichick and Mike Krzyzewski are Hall of Fame-caliber coaches. Many sports utilize the statistical analysis pioneered by another Boomer, Bill James.
Barriers of race and gender toppled. Ashe was the first black man to win the U.S. Open and Wimbledon. Cito Gaston was the first black manager to win a World Series and Tony Dungy the first black coach to win a Super Bowl.
Tennessee's Summit has guided the Lady Vols to eight national basketball championships and more than 1,000 victories in becoming one of the nation's superior coaches of any gender.
Late-wave Boomers propelled the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team to a stunning victory over the Soviet Union.
Jordan, Lewis, Joyner-Kersee, Rice, Woods, Maddux and Sampras rank among the best ever at their respective sports.
Gen X women were the first to benefit from Title IX legislation that ensured equal access to collegiate athletics and scholarships. Ex-Tar Heel Hamm joined her U.S. women's soccer teammates to provide athletic role models for a generation of American girls.
Across-the-board excellence in all sports is highlighted by the full inclusion of women and minorities. Coaches of color are central players in nearly every major sport except college football. Gen X athletes have competed under the full glare of ESPN, making them the most televised and publicized sports generation in history.
Woods' serial infidelity has taken a toll on his historic career.
Gen X coaches Mike McCarthy, Mike Tomlin, Sean Payton, Joe Girardi, Doc Rivers, Billy Donovan and Bill Self have won championships but the generation's overall sideline resume remains a bit thin.
Ever-increasing salaries and prize money continue to widen the gap between elite athletes and the public. Gen X athletes were caught up in work stoppages in the NFL (1987), baseball (1994-95) and the NBA (1998-99).
It's also hard to overlook the at-times suffocating commercialization of sports with what Neil Howe describes as "each individual athlete seeing themselves as a business."
Owens, Louis and Jackie Robinson transcended sports and proved that black athletes could compete on any playing field.
Didrikson, a two-time Olympic gold medalist in track and a three-time U.S. Open champion in golf, often is regarded as the nation's best all-around female athlete. Moody won eight Wimbledon and seven U.S. singles titles.
Williams' .406 average, DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, Owens' four gold medals at Berlin, Louis' and Rocky Marciano's domination of boxing's heavyweight ranks, Budge's grand slam in tennis, Jones' grand slam in golf and Snead's record 82 PGA Tour wins are high points of U.S. sports history.
GI coaches were the greatest: Wooden, Lombardi, Auerbach, Bryant, Paul Brown and Eddie Robinson are giants. The underrated John Kundla led the Minneapolis Lakers to five NBA titles. Woody Hayes guided a college football dynasty at Ohio State and Adolph Rupp turned Kentucky into a college basketball titan.
Marvin Miller built the baseball's players association into the strongest union in sports.
Brown and Johnny U. helped the NFL become the nation's preeminent sport, while Russell, Wilt, The Big O and West took the NBA to the front page of the nation's sports sections. Palmer and Nicklaus did the same for golf.
Little Mo Connolly became the first woman to win tennis' grand slam. Althea Gibson in tennis and Wilma Rudolph in track brought black female athletes into the headlines.
Many black Silent athletes, notably Russell, Brown and Aaron, were "extraordinary for their sense of social responsibility," said author David Kaiser.
And this generation hung around. From the 1948 Olympic decathlon gold medal that Bob Mathias won at 17 to Nicklaus' 1986 win at the Masters at 46, the Silents performed at the highest level for nearly four decades.
No generation produced a more sterling class of NFL coaches. Shula, Walsh, Chuck Noll, Joe Gibbs and Bill Parcells combined to win 14 Super Bowls.
Paterno is major college football's all-time winner. Knight and Dean Smith were college basketball titans, while Joe Torre has won four World Series and a record 84 postseason games. Herb Brooks is American sports' favorite miracle worker.
Rozelle presided over the spectacular growth of the NFL and the creation of the Super Bowl. David Stern has made the NBA a worldwide brand. Steinbrenner, anything but silent most of his life, was one of sports' most influential, albeit controversial, owners.
Silents maintained the popularity of baseball and achieved success in the Olympic Games of 1956, 1960 and 1964, particularly discus thrower Al Oerter.
Russell, Chamberlain, Brown, Mays and Aaron made black athletes highly visible in team sports.
Silent athletes rode the wave of what Neil Howe calls the American High, that era between the end of World War II and the JFK assassination, when the U.S. was on a two-decade winning streak -- a streak that included sports.
It is a generation, as Bill Russell demonstrated earlier this week, that Americans continue to honor.