Commentary

'They give me back my hope'

A Basketball Without Borders trip to South Africa touches the world, there and here

Originally Published: September 14, 2009
By Richard Lapchick | Special to ESPN.com

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- In Johannesburg earlier this month, all the sports talk was about the 2010 World Cup. It dominated the sports pages and TV time. And yet, the NBA created its own space here with the arrival of its Basketball Without Borders (BWB) Program.

I traveled with the BWB and watched with interest as it happened, not only to observe the effect of NBA stars Dwight Howard, Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Bosh and WNBA legends Theresa Edwards and Nykesha Sales on the people of South Africa, but also the effect of South Africa on them. And I saw the African athletes on the trip -- Dikembe Mutombo, Luc Mbah a Moute and D.J. Mbenga -- as they watched their teammates react to everything.

As a young civil rights activist, I read about South Africa in the early 1960s. I was astonished at the levels of oppression there. I came to know it as the worst form of racism on the face of the earth in the second half of the 20th century. I wrote about it and became involved in it as the head of ACCESS, the American Coordinating Committee for Equality in Sport in Society, which focused on boycotting South Africa in the world of sport. There were oil boycotts, trade boycotts and bank loan boycotts, yet somehow South Africa was able to get goods, cash and oil smuggled into the country. But the sports boycott worked. South Africa is a sports-mad country, and you can't play sports in the dark.

At the time I founded ACCESS in 1976, most of the countries in the world were no longer competing against South Africa in protest of its apartheid regime. Only the United States, Britain, New Zealand and Australia still allowed athletes and teams from South Africa to travel to their shores, and still sent their own teams to South Africa to compete.

Among the athletes on this year's Basketball Without Borders trip, only Edwards and Mutombo had been born back then. In this country in the '70s, we barely knew what apartheid was. Most Americans thought of South Africa as a civilized, Christian, anti-communist, pro-United States nation. Few knew that if you were among the 81 percent of the population who were not white, you could not vote, own land or send your children to certain schools. You existed simply to serve the white economy as a domestic servant, or in factories, farms and mines.

[+] EnlargeDwight Howard Basketball without borders
NBAThe Magic's Dwight Howard brought back much to share from the lessons he learned in South Africa.

The first South African team to come to the United States after ACCESS was formed was the Davis Cup Team in 1978. They were met with great tumult and controversy; and ultimately, very few attended the matches. The number of protestors outside the stadium was four times greater than the number of fans inside.

I honored the travel boycott to South Africa for all the years of its existence. However, when I was asked by the newly formed National Olympic Committee of South Africa under the emerging government to bring Project Teamwork to the country in 1993, I was ready to go for the first time. Project Teamwork was a successful program that I helped create as the director of Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society in the late 1980s that taught conflict-resolution skills and tried to improve race relations among young people.

By then, Nelson Mandela had been released from prison (in 1990) and was about to make history by being elected president, which happened in 1994. In an effort to make a larger impression on the people of South Africa -- where sports were totally segregated -- I went to NBA commissioner David Stern and Charlie Grantham, then the head of the Players Association, and asked for their assistance. They agreed; and on that first Project Teamwork trip in 1993 and again in 1994, we took Dikembe Mutombo, Alonzo Mourning and Patrick Ewing with us to South Africa, along with coaches Wes Unseld and Lenny Wilkens. Stern and Grantham came, as well. Kim Bohuny, a driving force behind the NBA's international expansion, was there in 1993 and again with BWB this year, as well as many times in between.

We had dinner with Mandela in 1993 and began to create South Africa's first integrated sport: basketball.

Traditionally, rugby and cricket were whites-only sports in South Africa. Soccer was for blacks. Perhaps it is a measure of the progress that soccer is king there right now, as the country prepares to play host to next year's World Cup.

In 1993, basketball was new in South Africa, and it could be shaped as an integrated sport. The NBA has been coming for seven consecutive years with its Basketball Without Borders program, and the most recent trip allowed us to see the fruits of democracy as well as some of the problems that persist in South Africa. For those involved in the civil rights movement, and especially the anti-apartheid movement, Mandela's land is still considered sacred ground.

Howard has had a big and positive impact on the Orlando community, but I knew South Africa would be a whole new world for him and many of the others. I particularly wanted to see the interaction between Howard and Mutombo, whose humanitarian efforts in Africa have been recognized worldwide, and how Mutombo might shed light on life in South Africa for the younger player.

The program was for the "campers," 60 of the best players from more than 20 countries on the continent. They received instruction in basketball as well as life skills and participated in daily community events in and around Johannesburg. Mbah a Moute, from Cameroon, was an early camper in this program and became one of the African players now in the NBA. Seeing the talent and opportunities for developing it, few have doubts that the African population in the NBA and in American colleges and universities in Division I basketball programs will continue to grow.

I asked Mutombo what he hoped would come from this BWB trip.

"I want these young NBA players to go home and tell people about what they saw in South Africa so America can help Africa even more," he said.

Mutombo's first trip to South Africa in 1993 was at a dangerous time. Violence was still happening all across the country, and the NBA had to provide security to protect us from risk. When we went to the American embassy for a reception hosted by the U.S. ambassador, we learned that Amy Elizabeth Biehl, a 26-year-old American Fulbright exchange scholar who was doing community work in South Africa, had been murdered that day. It became an international incident, and she remains a hero in many quarters. The ambassador had to take leave early that night because of the crisis.

How different it is now that African people have been able to live in freedom for the 15 years since Mandela's inauguration. This time, when we went to meet the South African ambassador at a reception, we had a joyous night. The tension was gone, the spirits were high and the hopes for the future were strong in spite of the problems that still exist in South Africa.

The key to Mutombo's hope for the players, of course, is their responses to the effects of apartheid. I watched them closely as they went through the Apartheid Museum, which is an amazingly accurate and emotive display of the horrors inflicted on black South Africans over the course of the 20th century. The players sat down at certain spots to stare at the more powerful images. They seemed to freeze as we stepped into a room where more than 100 nooses hung from the ceiling representing South Africans who died fighting for their freedom during the early days of resistance. With the history of lynchings in the United States, the Americans in the room were chilled to the bone.

They had the same reactions at the Hector Pieterson Museum. Pieterson was the first of 600 children killed in the Soweto Massacre in June 1976, a final turning point in world opinion about apartheid in South Africa. We drove through the streets of Soweto, including areas featuring new homes built since Mandela became president as well as mile after mile of shanties without sewage or running water that still exist because of the lack of resources to amend the wrongs of the racist century that preceded Mandela. We walked through those streets in Kliptown, one of the worst parts of Soweto.

I saw Howard looking deeply reflective and appearing very, very quiet back at the hotel after the first day at the museums and in Soweto. Before we went out to dinner, I asked him what he'd been thinking. He said, "I have so much to share with people at home. I had no idea about all of this."

That is exactly what Mutombo wanted from the trip.

For the next three days, the players were inspired to work hard on several community projects. They planted a vegetable garden for the Cotlands Home, a shelter for HIV-positive, abused, abandoned, orphaned and terminally ill children. The next day, they worked on building four Habitat for Humanity homes in Ivory Park, another poverty-riddled neighborhood. The final afternoon was spent in Kliptown, where representatives from previous NBA Cares and BWB visits had built a Reading and Learning Center and a dining hall and kitchen which feeds the 500 children in the after-school program at the SKY (Soweto Kliptown Youth) Trust -- an example of the legacy of NBA Cares and BWB. The league and the players have donated additional funds for SKY programs amounting to nearly $200,000. Mutombo has been one of the driving forces at SKY, as he has been in so many places.

On the last afternoon in Kliptown, I asked Jerome "Slim" DuPlooy, who has been working locally with Basketball Without Borders for several years, what the visits from BWB mean to his people.

"It means everything," he said. "The children here who live in fear of the devils and demons of abuse, rape and neglect get nothing but love and affection from all these NBA people. Everyone has to think about dropping out when conditions are so desperate. Life is so hard here. I was ready to quit, but these guys picked me up. They don't come and leave. The NBA stays in touch with us."

"Slim" is 22 and studying to become an actor so he can entertain people and tell dramatic stories to lift the spirits of the people in South Africa. He said he hit a low point, personally, in June of this year because he'd seen too many of his friends battling HIV or succumbing to the street life of crime. Coincidentally, the Magic lost in the NBA Finals to the Lakers at the same time.

"Dwight shook me up with what he said," Slim told me. "Instead of being knocked out by the loss, Dwight told Jameer [Nelson] 'You have to lose something to win something.' That eased my pain and made me believe the pain was the loss, and now I would win. What they do for us is everything. They give me back my hope."

Richard E. Lapchick is chairman of the DeVos Sport Business Management Graduate Program in the College of Business Administration at the University of Central Florida. The author of 14 books, Lapchick also directs UCF's Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, is the author of the annual Racial and Gender Report Card and is the director of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport. He is a regular ESPN.com commentator on issues of diversity in sport.

Richard Lapchick

Contributing Writer, ESPN.com