Smith retired in 1997 after 36 seasons with the Tar Heels as the winningest coach in NCAA men's history with 879 wins. He won two national championships, reached 11 Final Fours, and won 13 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament titles. He led the U.S. men's team to gold in the 1976 Summer Olympics.
Obama said Smith's successes "go far beyond Xs and Os."
"While Coach Smith couldn't join us today due to an illness that he's facing with extraordinary courage, we also honor his courage in helping to change our country," Obama said. "He recruited the first black scholarship athlete to North Carolina and helped to integrate a restaurant and a neighborhood in Chapel Hill. That's the kind of character that he represented on and off the court."
Smith, 82, has kept a low profile since his family revealed in 2010 that Smith had a "progressive neurocognitive disorder that affects his memory."
Current UNC men's basketball coach Roy Williams, who spent 10 years as an assistant to Smith before taking over at Kansas, and longtime assistant Bill Guthridge also attended the ceremony.
Smith was honored alongside former President Bill Clinton and TV personality Oprah Winfrey on Wednesday. He joins UCLA's John Wooden as the second men's college basketball coach to receive the award, which was created five decades ago by President John F. Kennedy.