On Wednesday, after many (over)indulged on a holiday meal, we collapsed on our couches to watch the Miami Heat beat the Los Angeles Lakers. During the game, the Heat paid tribute to former South African president, Nelson Mandela, with a video montage narrated by Alonzo Mourning.
This tribute was appropriate because Mandela's biography was inextricably linked to sports. However, his legacy in the world of sports spans beyond this game, so much so that I believe a professional sports league, such as the National Basketball Association (NBA), should retire the No. 27 to commemorate the years spent in prison fighting for equality for all.
Mandela, an amateur boxer in college, was a deeply knowledgeable sports fan, and understood its power as a platform for uniting people of divergent beliefs, cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds. In 1976, African countries boycotted the Montreal Olympic Games to protest of New Zealand's decision to send its All Blacks rugby team to tour of apartheid South Africa. Nineteen years later, he used the Rugby World Cup to calcify his country's fragile democracy, rallying the home team around a Springbok jersey, which emblemized the apartheid system that caged him for nearly three decades. And, while receiving the Laureus World Sports Award in 2000, he said, "Sport has the power to change the world... to create hope where there was only despair... it laughs in the face of all kinds of discrimination."
If Mandela is considered the father of the rainbow nation, dedicating his life to integration and inclusion, the NBA seems to embody this template among the major sports franchises in North America, and should consider retiring a number in his honor. Just last year, the Institute of Diversity of Ethics in Sports released its Racial and Gender Report Card, and gave the NBA a very strong "A" grade for promoting diversity within the organization. According to the report, 34 percent of employees at the NBA league office are people of color and 42 percent are women, and nearly half the league's head coaches are African American. When it comes to player representation, that same study revealed that 82 percent of NBA players are of color, of which 78 percent are African American and the number of African American team physicians increased to 17 percent in a single year, by far the best record among the major sports leagues.
NBA Commissioner David Stern, who like the late Mandela is a trained lawyer, called him "one of the most powerful and inspirational leaders in the world and a great friend of the NBA." And David Stern should know. Following his release from prison, Mr. Mandela helped the NBA extend its reach to the African region, especially South Africa, opening back channel access for the league at a time Mandela was calling on companies and countries to tighten sanctions against an apartheid regime that would remain in power four full years beyond Mandela's release. In an interview with the Voice of America, senior NBA analyst and writer for NBA.com, Sekou Smith said, "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 South Africa. It's continued on to this day, obviously."
Today, the NBA is in fact a global game. At the start of 2013-14 NBA season, there were 92 foreign born players on opening day rosters, representing 39 countries, of which over two dozen come from the African continent. Its Basketball Without Borders Program, which allows youths from around the world to train with NBA players, is an unparalleled success and provides clinics for young boys and girls in South America, India, China, Europe and Africa. Paying homage to a man who has made an indelible, global contribution would reflect the demographics of the NBA, specifically, and society, more broadly.
Retiring a number immortalizes the memory of an individual, though imperfect, who's made an indelible contribution to the betterment of a team, league or organization. If the criteria for retiring a jersey include an introspective imperfection, selfless sacrifice for the betterment of the team, contributions to elevating the organization, while making those around you better in the process, then Nelson Mandela certainly embodied these traits on a very global scale. Sending the No. 27 jersey to the rafters for good would be a fitting tribute to the man, who was clearly passionate about sport, and whose values are so vividly reflected in today's NBA.