MEMPHIS -- Before the Los Angeles Clippers took the court Thursday night to play the Memphis Grizzlies, they gathered as a team in the visitor's locker room and lowered their heads in a moment of silence for the death of Nelson Mandela.
No one in the locker room had ever met Mandela but their connection to him and his teachings grew in training camp when Kita "Thierry" Matungulu joined the Clippers coaching staff for a month, as he had done when Doc Rivers was with the Boston Celtics.
Rivers never met Mandela but credits him with embodying and popularizing the philosophy he used to win his first and only NBA title, in 2008.
In 2002, Rivers was at a fundraising event in New York when he was sitting at a table with Matungulu, who helped found Hoops 4 Hope, a South African basketball organization that helps teach kids about sports and life skills. During the conversation, he told Rivers about Ubuntu.
Ubuntu, according to Mandela, doesn’t have a singular meaning, but is a word that embodies respect, unselfishness, sharing and community, among other things. It’s an unspoken bond and understanding among people.
“In the old days when we were young, a traveler would stop at a village,” Mandela once explained. “And he didn’t have to ask for food or for water. Once he stops, the people give him food. That is one aspect of Umbutu, but it has various aspects.”
Rivers later called Matungulu, who was in Cape Town, South Africa, and asked him if Ubuntu could be applied to basketball. Matungulu said he smiled on the other line. It was essentially what Matungulu did for a living, and he asked if he could go to Boston and talk to Rivers' team.
Ubuntu would become the rallying cry of the Celtics during the 2007-08 season. They would gather in a circle with their arms raised and hands together before every game and yell, “Ubuntu!” before taking the floor. When they went on to win the championship that season, “Ubuntu” was inscribed into their championship rings.
Matungulu has spoken to Rivers’ teams for the past 10 seasons and spent training camp with the Clippers in October.
When Mandela died on Thursday, Matungulu reached out to Rivers, and many of his messages to the team, inspired by Mandela, once again resonated with the players in the locker room.
“He’s the guy that introduced Umbutu to me, and that’s the term that I use,” Rivers said. “Kita’s in South Africa, and he sent me a long email today and so we were conversing. ... It’s important for our players to know who [Mandela] was. He may be the important figure in our lifetime that I can think of as far as making world change.”
Rivers has been cautious not to reference his time with Boston when he coaches the Clippers. He believes this is a different team that will respond to different messages, but Ubuntu is unique. While the Clippers don’t break huddles with it or have it written on dry-erase boards, it is a philosophy they have embraced under Rivers.
“Umbutu works in life,” River said. “It works for everybody. It doesn’t have to be basketball. I’m not selling it with this team yet, but it is something that’s important for all of us. It’s about being resilient and sharing the joy with your teammate when he’s doing well and feeling the pain when your teammate is feeling bad. All of that is important.”
After the Clippers’ 101-81 win over the Grizzlies on Thursday night, the Clippers returned to the visitor's locker room at FedEx Forum with a distinctly different mood than they had the previous night after losing in Atlanta. During the course of an 82-game season, messages come and go, philosophies wane and goals sometimes take a backseat to apathy on the road.
There was a different feeling, however, in the Clippers' locker room before and after Thursday's game, and that carried over onto the court. Matungulu’s messages to the Clippers during training camp, which might have been forgotten two months later, were as fresh as ever when the game started.
“I was reminded about that today,” Blake Griffin said. “When one person eats, we all eat. It’s that philosophy of not caring who has the good game or who gets the shots or who gets the glory.”
It might seem simplistic, but for a young team that hasn’t won anything yet, that selfless attitude is often easier talked about than displayed when the game starts.
“He talked to us how it’s all about the team,” Paul said. “No one person can do it alone. I don’t care who you are or what team it is -- there hasn’t been a championship team that just had one guy doing it. It takes a team, and that’s what we’re trying to do. Kita was so inspirational when he was here, and hopefully he’ll be back before the season is over.
"Doc reminded us before the game. He talked about Mandela. Obviously, we’re playing basketball and that’s not as important as other issues that are going on in the world, but his message was huge.”