Playing in the turbulent 1960s, Mr. West’s Lakers frequently competed against, and lost to, the Celtics in the N.B.A. finals. The Celtics were led by Bill Russell, a fellow member of the Hall of Fame and a civil rights icon. Mr. Russell, who is black, attended the March on Washington in 1963, and had a notoriously stormy relationship with the mostly white Celtics fans, which spilled over onto Mr. West.
In his 2011 autobiography “West by West,” Mr. West wrote that he “always sensed how difficult it was for Bill to play in a fiercely segregated city like Boston.” Despite being a star player of the hated Celtics, Mr. West writes that he was a fan favorite in Boston, acknowledging that “part of it was no doubt because I was white.”
In 2011, Mr. Russell received a Medal of Freedom from Mr. Obama. Mr. Cousy, his former teammate, told Mr. Trump when he received his award last month that he was “the most extraordinary president in my lifetime.”
Mr. West’s politics are more difficult to discern. He wrote in his biography in 2008 that he found “the possibility of America electing a black man president incredible,” and that he intended to vote for Mr. Obama even though it “did not sit well with many of the guys I play gin with at Bel-Air Country Club.”
But on Thursday, he paid Mr. Trump one major compliment: “We read on our phone President Trump’s instantaneous tweets,” he said. “Pretty good, by the way.”
The Medal of Freedom was established by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, and is awarded at a president’s discretion to honor civilians who have made important political, artistic, scientific and other contributions to American society.
Mr. Trump has awarded far fewer of the medals at this point in his presidency than did Mr. Obama, who sometimes awarded more than a dozen at a single White House event. In a recent interview with NBA.com, Mr. Cousy — who like Mr. West was the only recipient of the day — said that Mr. Trump had told him that “he liked doing it, so he didn’t want to do them all together.”