Washington — Nelson Mandela, a successful amateur boxer, was a passionate sports fan.
After his release from prison in 1990, the South African anti-apartheid icon envisioned using sports to help inspire his racially torn nation. One of those sports was basketball, which at the time had only limited popularity in South Africa.
Mandela took steps to form a partnership between South Africa and the U.S. National Basketball Association (NBA). That bond introduced many people in his country to the game and sparked a rapid growth of basketball throughout Africa.
NBA Commissioner David Stern paid tribute to Mandela after his death earlier this month, calling the former South African president "one of the most powerful and inspirational leaders in the world and a great friend of the NBA."
According to Sekou Smith, a senior analyst for NBA.com and NBA TV, Mandela truly believed that sports had the power to unite people.
"In Africa, someone had to pave the way for that relationship to begin," Smith said. "That's where Nelson Mandela came in, in terms of opening doors diplomatically for the NBA and its players and its union to come into South Africa and establish relationships. I think Nelson Mandela was considered kind of an ambassador for the league in many respects because of the cache he had and the political clout he had to be able to bring people to the table, businesses and others, to help facilitate the NBA having a presence in Africa and certainly in South Africa. It's continued on to this day, obviously."
The Dream Team
That relationship began in 1993, when the NBA toured Africa hoping to capitalize on basketball's popularity after the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.
In Barcelona, the U.S. men's squad won the Gold Medal behind the play of the "Dream Team," which included NBA legends Michael Jordan, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson.
During the tour, an NBA delegation stopped in South Africa, where several NBA players hosted basketball clinics for children. At a banquet, Mandela, one year away from being elected South Africa's president, welcomed the NBA's presence in his country.
"I understand that the National Basketball Association and the players union will be bringing a team to tour South Africa at this time next year," Mandela said. "We have great optimism that by your next visit, we will be welcoming you to a democratic, united South Africa. That will be one of the most exciting moments in the history of our country, and we hope to enjoy it together with you."
Stern then gave Mandela a basketball signed by the "Dream Team."
"You are a dreamer who [has] ignited a nation in dreaming a dream which is very close to being fulfilled," Stern said. "It's my pleasure ... to present to you a basketball that has been signed by each member of the USA world champion 'Dream Team' in the Barcelona Olympics. It is a treasure, but nothing near the treasure that you bring to this nation and the world. Thank you very much."
Stern says he will long be thankful that he worked hand-in-hand with Mandela, whose foresight helped lead to a tremendous rise in the number of African players now in the NBA.