Mandela, who died Thursday at age 95, is perhaps the most beloved political figure in my lifetime. It didn’t matter whether you were liberal, conservative or radical; black or white; man or woman: This man brought people together. And part of his humanity was understanding the role sports could play.

White South African officials portrayed him as a terrorist, but for black South Africans he was their hero. Mandela led the African National Congress (ANC) in the resistance to apartheid, the most racist system of government on the face of the earth in the second half of the 20th century.

During much of his life, the vast majority of South Africans by law could not own a home where they wanted, go to any school they might favor, work where they wanted to or vote. People of color had no rights. And 81 percent of the population was of color — either African, like Mandela; Coloured (people of mixed ancestry); or Asian, people whose families came as laborers early in the 1900s.
Mandela was called a communist and a radical revolutionary by those who supported the white regime in the 1950s. The ANC sought America’s support from the administration of President Dwight D. Eisenhower but none was to be had. This was true with anti-colonial forces all across the continent of Africa and around the world.

During his trial for treason, Mandela uttered what became his most famous quote, striking fear in his captors and inspiring those he wanted to help liberate: “During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people, I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination. I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if it needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.”

I watched on television as he was led away to prison in 1963. I dreamt that night that someday not only would Mandela be released but also he would become the president of South Africa. Decades, not years, went by as the dream seemed unattainable.

At a particularly low point in the 1970s, I had a conversation with George Houser, my mentor in the anti-apartheid movement. Houser had been involved since the 1940s in various struggles for freedom, including in the civil rights movement in the United States. I asked him when he thought South Africa would become free and Houser said, “I don’t think I’ll live to see it.” Still, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Angola and Guinea-Bissau became free. Then activists working to end unjust and exclusionary governments knew it was possible that the same would happen for South Africa.

We heard stories about the horrible conditions on Robben Island, where Mandela was held for 18 years. Mandela’s health status was not known but he was rumored to be ill. When we heard he was finally going to be released, almost three decades after he had been imprisoned, joy swept through communities of conscience all across the globe. But it was impossible to tell what Mandela would be like after so many years in prison. Would he come out hating white people, bitter and angry, seeking revenge in his pursuit of justice?

The miracle of this man was that he came out embracing everybody, extending his love to all races and to people of different ideologies. His love was so extensive that he had even befriended his jailor and later invited him to his inauguration.

He had such a way with words as he fought for unity. “To be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others. If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.”

I finally met Mr. Mandela for the first time in Boston in 1990, the year he was released from prison. When I introduced myself, I said, “My name is Richard” and he stopped me, with both hands holding my hand and said, “Richard, Richard, Richard.” It sent a chill down my spine. He recognized that I had been the leader of the American sports boycott of South Africa for 15 years.

The ANC and the new South African Olympic Committee, led by Sam Ramsamy, who had fought apartheid in exile for two decades, asked me to bring “Project Teamwork” to South Africa. The program uses athletes to teach conflict-resolution skills and to work on improving race relations.

I asked NBA commissioner David Stern and National Basketball Players Association chief Charlie Grantham to help. In 1993, Stern and Grantham helped lead a delegation including players Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, and coaches Lenny Wilkens and Wes Unseld. At the time, sports in South Africa were totally segregated. Whites played rugby and cricket and blacks played soccer. Because basketball was not popular, it became a new sport, one that everybody could play.

Mandela hosted us at a dinner in Johannesburg during that first visit. Earlier in 1993, he had won the Nobel Peace Prize. I went with my wife, Ann, and our baby girl, Emily. When we greeted him in the reception line, Emily was sound asleep and Mr. Mandela said, “Finally, someone who doesn’t care whether or not they meet me. Hello, Emily.”

We went back again in 1994, this time to a free and independent South Africa. I had been invited to the inauguration. As we drove from Johannesburg to Pretoria, where the ceremonies were taking place, we saw the military hardware and the weapons that had been used to oppress Mandela’s people for generations and knew that within hours they would begin to be used as weapons to preserve peace.

As I watched President Mandela take the oath of office after all those years in prison, I knew, perhaps for the first time, that anything and everything, harmony and opportunity for all, was possible. It was a joyous, joyous day. Right after the ceremony, all the embassies in Pretoria wanted to host President Mandela with a celebratory party. Instead, the man who had been a sports fan and a gifted athlete in his youth boarded a helicopter and went back to Johannesburg, where he attended the Zambia-South Africa soccer match.

I was invited to sit in the box with President Mandela, and I asked a question even though I was quite sure I knew the answer (and have described before): “Mr. President, with all the diplomatic parties being held in your honor, why did you come here to the soccer match?” He said, “I wanted my people to know that I know that because of the sacrifices our athletes made for so long, I became their president earlier than I would have without those sacrifices.”

This was the ultimate statement about the power of sport. I am confident that, as he sat there in that box, as the new president of South Africa, he was thinking ahead a year to when the World Cup for rugby, a whites-only sport, would take place in South Africa.

As “Invictus” — the Clint Eastwood film starring Morgan Freeman — portrayed, Mandela went against popular thought in the African community. He made sure that his countrymen supported the South African rugby team and that it would be a celebration of the united South Africa. What seemed unthinkable became reality. Fifteen years later with the soccer World Cup, a sporting event again united the people of South Africa.

In the years since 1994, when he voted for the first time, and since 1999, when he relinquished the presidency after one term, South Africa has made great progress, but there are enormous problems. The country simply did not have the resources to solve the problems of poverty or meet the expectations of all its citizens. So while things are better, they are not what one might have hoped 19 years after independence.

One of my fears about losing Mr. Mandela was that this united South Africa would no longer be united without him. One hopes his spirit will endure. We have lost a giant of a human being, such that I have never seen in my own lifetime. I will miss you, Mr. President.

More remembrances of Mandela: “UCF Executive MBA students study in South Africa, reflect on the impact of Mandela.”

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Human rights activist, pioneer for racial equality, internationally recognized expert on sports issues, scholar and author Richard E. Lapchick is often described as “the racial conscience of sport.” He brought his commitment to equality and his belief that sport can be an effective instrument of positive social change to the University of Central Florida, where he accepted an endowed chair in August 2001. Lapchick became the only person named as “One of the 100 Most Powerful People in Sport” to head up a sport management program. He serves as the endowed chair (DeVos/Orlando Magic Sport Business Management Eminent Scholar)/director of the DeVos Sport Business Management Program in the College of Business Administration, and is founding director of The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES). He remains president and CEO of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport (NCAS) and helped bring the NCAS national office to UCF.