Sports were one of the many areas in South African life where blacks and whites were completely segregated when Mandela walked out of prison on Feb. 11, 1990. The country had been boycotted by a great deal of the world's sports community for decades before he was elected to power in 1994.
But Mandela also knew that sports offer one of those places where integration could be swiftly achieved and held up as concrete proof of what was possible -- both to South Africans and to the rest of the world.
That's why there was inspired genius -- not just symbolism -- behind Mandela's startling decision to walk onto the field wearing the Springbok jersey that day at the world rugby championships.
It represented another prison door flung open without prejudice or bitterness.
The most powerful man in the country -- now a black man -- had just appropriated a potent symbol of white apartness and made it his own, rejecting whatever power it had before. And it was impossible to regard it the same way ever again.
The same is true of South Africa since Mandela.
In college, there were two pictures of Nelson Mandela that I kept with me. To me they told the comprehensive story of who he was, who he was to me.
Back in the early '80s, when he was still on Robben Island, Mandela became a symbol to a generation of us who were in search for our own Dr. Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Muhammad Ali. The last was of somewhat greater significance to many of us because, through sports, we found liberators and agents of change. Jackie Robinson. Jim Brown. Bill Russell. Curt Flood. John Carlos and Tommie Smith. Arthur Ashe.
Ruben Carter's false imprisonment was less significant in comparison to Mandela's. As was Ali's much shorter stay.
Apartheid was the new slavery gone global. As children of America's civil rights movement who were too young to participate in initiating freedom and equality for our future, my peers and I latched on to the anti-apartheid movement as though the South African laws directly applied to us. With this, Mandela became more than a hero. The ANC was our NAACP and SNCC. It was an organization we fought for without being a part of.
Over the years, Mandela has evolved beyond a sports connection to embody human struggle, sacrifice and the importance of liberties.
We often get stuck thinking of him "doing 27 years in prison" and forget what he did prior to becoming my generation's living "Black Shining Prince." Over the years, the boxing photos in my house were replaced by books treated as bibles ("A Long Walk To Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela"; "Mandela's Way: Fifteen Lessons on Life, Love and Courage" by Richard Stengel; "Nelson Mandela: A Biography" by Martin Meredith; "Conversations With Myself" by Nelson Mandela), speeches, news clips, magazines, Morgan Freeman and Sidney Poitier films, a future wall mural and two T-shirts. One shirt that has his prison number "46664" across the chest, the other with his clan name "Madiba" on the front, hidden in black on a black tee.
His Tao has become the template of man. Of how we should all aspire to live and lead even when/if our personal, cultural or societal circumstances don't reach the depths and heights of his.
I tell people all of the time: I named my son after Ali, but I'm raising him to be Mandela.