Commentary

Nelson Mandela laid to rest

Updated: December 15, 2013, 9:15 PM ET
By Richard Lapchick | Special to ESPN.com

Nelson Mandela funeralAP Photo/Elmond JiyaneSouth African military escorted the casket of Nelson Mandela to Qunu, which was his first home.

SOWETO, South Africa -- The 10 days of mourning for Nelson Mandela have come to an end after he was buried Sunday with his ancestors in the rural town of Qunu. The commemorations included Tuesday's memorial service at FNB Stadium, the 100,000-plus people who passed by his casket at the Union Buildings in Pretoria and hundreds of events in South Africa and around the globe. I have never seen such love for anyone in my lifetime.

His body was flown from Pretoria to the Eastern Cape on Saturday night. The roads from the Mthatha airport to Qunu were lined with thousands of people who were dancing and singing. Suddenly the global and national attention was local with the people who so identify with Nelson Mandela as family and neighbors.

As the sun set Saturday, the men in Mandela's family, tribal chiefs and African National Congress leaders gathered for a private all-night vigil in the tradition of Mandela's native Thembu clan. His body sat in his own bedroom, which overlooked his grave site.

I have been committed to the anti-apartheid movement and in post-apartheid South Africa for nearly 45 years, so when I came here this week for the services, I tried to do everything with the South African people and not ask for special requests. I knew that I needed to get access to the memorial service on Tuesday so I asked. But when I went to see Nelson Mandela lying in state, I was simply one of 100,000 who passed his coffin.

The final celebration of Mandela's life was to be in Qunu, which is 850 kilometers from Johannesburg, and all flights were booked. I contemplated driving but when friends in Kliptown, a section of Soweto, asked me to be with them and a group of youth (they call them the "Born Free Generation") to watch the funeral, I jumped at the chance.

[+] EnlargeMandela Funeral from Soweto
Oli Scarff/Getty ImagesFamilies in Soweto and across South Africa gathered around televisions in homes and in larger groups in public to watch the funeral service of Nelson Mandela.

The last time I had been with them was in 2009 when I went to South Africa with the NBA's Basketball Without Borders program. The NBA had built the Kliptown youth facility in one of the most impoverished sections of Soweto and the leader was called Big Bob. (The problem was Bob Lanier was on the trip, and he held all rights to "Big Bob.") The liaison from South Africa to the NBA was Jeremy DuPlooy, known by everyone as "Slim." We met an 18-year-old girl named Andsiwa. Since then, my wife, Ann, and I have been in regular touch with her. So it was a reunion for me with those I met on that trip and all the kids from the center.

Watching the event with the children and my friends was wonderful. The children performed dances and songs before the services in Qunu started. Their energy was amazing. But once the services began every child stared at the screen without blinking for three hours. This was their Mandela, and they did not want to miss a word.

Because of the finality of a funeral, I was more somber than the children as we started watching. It was, of course, filled with eloquent tributes. Most of the heads of state attended the memorial service on Tuesday, but there were quite a few there for the funeral. Celebrities from the United States included the Rev. Jesse Jackson, Oprah Winfrey and Alfre Woodard, an anti-apartheid activist who has since worked with Mandela to combat HIV/AIDS in the region.

A tribal chief talked about traditions and singled out those who cared for Mandela while he was ill. Ahmed Kathrada, who started working with Mandela 67 years ago and shared 25 years in prison, told stories about the early days of the ANC. He said Mandela was now leading the "A Team" of ANC heroes in heaven.

Nandi Mandela spoke for the family. She highlighted her grandfather's humility by sharing a story about a huge banquet in his honor. The emcee for the event introduced all the "important people" in the audience and then Mandela, who got up and told the audience that the most important people had not been introduced. He left the stunned audience and went into the kitchen and shook hands with everyone there. Then he went out and told the audience that the most important people were the wait staff and the people working in the kitchen. That was Mandela.

President Joyce Banda of Malawi, a rare woman president in Africa, observed that Mandela was an incredible supporter of women. She said he taught her that as a leader you have to love the people before you can get them to love you.

Without exception, everyone emphasized that they learned important life lessons from this great leader.

As the funeral ended, I reflected on the week and the sports link that eventually connected me to Mandela. During this time of remembrance and celebration, there were still sports connections every day and everywhere.

Many sports events, including South African Premier League soccer games, were canceled.

Jacob "Baby Jake" Matlala died on Dec. 7. He was one of the most popular people in South Africa. Along with a thousand others, I attended his funeral on Dec. 13 in Johannesburg. There were pictures of "Baby Jake" shown throughout the three-hour service. The four-time flyweight and junior flyweight world champion had many pictures with President Mandela, including one of them sparring together and another with "Baby Jake" handing his championship belt to Mandela, who was sitting ringside. Mandela was, of course, a good boxer. Jake's son Tshepo said, "I can see my Dad sparring with Nelson Mandela right now."

[+] EnlargeMandela
Getty ImagesNelson Mandela was a boxer as a young man in the 1950s.

During my free time, I was transfixed watching 24-hour coverage of Mandela's life, exploring the meaning and history of this incredible icon. So many times prominent South African athletes paid tribute to Mandela and told of how he embraced athletes in South Africa. There were tributes from athletes around the world about Mandela. NBA blogger Jerrod Mustaf wrote, "This week, NBA Africa joins the world in extending our gratitude for the commitment to resistance, resolve, global reconciliation, and the rebuilding of South Africa's constitution by Nelson Mandela." Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt said, Mandela was "one of the greatest human beings ever."

Mandela's own favorite athlete, Muhammad Ali, made a statement that said, "What I will remember most about Mr. Mandela is that he was a man whose heart, soul and spirit could not be contained or restrained by racial and economic injustices, metal bars or the burden of hate and revenge. He taught us forgiveness on a grand scale."

None of this was surprising because of Mandela's lifelong love of sport and knowledge of it as a powerful tool for change. He talked about the way inmates on Robben Island discovered that people around the world wanted to fight apartheid when they heard about protests at South African matches in the United Kingdom, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and, much later, in the United States.

Although kept isolated in prison, Mandela enjoyed that the other inmates organized a prison soccer league. He emphasized that the sport "made us feel alive and triumphant despite the situation we found ourselves in."

I wrote in a previous column how he went to a Zambia-South Africa soccer match immediately after his 1994 inauguration to acknowledge that the sacrifices South African athletes made had hastened the day he became president and how he used the 1995 Rugby World Cup to bring his people together across racial lines. Finally, it is fitting that his last public appearance was at the closing ceremony of the 2010 Soccer World Cup in Johannesburg. The successful staging of the World Cup was a triumph for South Africa and all of Africa.

All of us who try to use the power of sport to effect positive social change quote Nelson Mandela's remarks in a speech in Monaco in 2000 when he said: "Sport has the power to change the world. It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers."

While in South Africa this week, I had dinner most nights with Amadou Fall, who heads up the NBA Africa office, which is in Johannesburg. He oversees Basketball Without Borders and a growing list of other basketball-related programs in Africa. He told me: "As someone from Africa living here in South Africa in this special and historic moment, it is bittersweet. I feel privileged and honored to live and work in the country Nelson Mandela built. Growing up in Senegal, the plight of the brave people of South Africa has always been on our consciousness, the fight against apartheid has had deep impact and Nelson Mandela, the leader of the struggle, was my lifelong hero.

"His thoughts and belief in the power of sport, resonated specifically with me. I have committed myself to a life of service, using sport as a platform."

You did not have to be South African to love Nelson Mandela. You did not have to be African. You simply had to be alive.

Among hundreds of his quotes that I treasure, my favorite might be "It always seems impossible until it is done." There is more, much more to be done. But how much Nelson Mandela has moved us already is immeasurable.

Some asked me what I would say to Nelson Mandela if I had a chance. It would be simple: "Thank you, Nelson Mandela, for making this a more loving world. Thank you for allowing me to see how I could be a stronger and better person. Thank you for letting me into your life and being a hero and a friend."

Rest in peace, my treasured friend.

Richard Lapchick

Contributing Writer, ESPN.com

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