The Harlem Globetrotters have a special connection with world leader and civil rights activist Nelson Mandela, who passed away at his home in Johannesburg, South Africa, on December 5 at the age of 95.
Just two years after Mandela became South Africa’s first black president, the Harlem Globetrotters made world news in the summer of 1996, becoming history's first professional basketball team to play in a free democratic South Africa, a landmark step in celebration of the country’s new era.
During the visit, the team named Mandela an Honorary Harlem Globetrotter, an accolade bestowed upon only eight individuals in the team’s 88-year history, recognizing people of extraordinary achievement who have made an everlasting mark on the world and embody the ambassadorial spirit of the Globetrotters.
Reaching out to communities, the Globetrotters hosted clinics for kids and made numerous visits to schools, hospitals and underprivileged youth in South Africa. Nearly half a million kids and adults attended the appearances, and the Globetrotters and their tour sponsors raised over one million dollars for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund to help South African children in need. Additionally, 5,000 basketball hoops, 50,000 basketballs and a regulation basketball court were donated to the youth of South Africa.
The Globetrotters’ tour of South Africa saw five sold-out games played before thousands in packed arenas, as South Africans were introduced to Globetrotter basketball in townships throughout the country. Opening day in Johannesburg was nationally televised, and a free show for children in Soweto was up-linked for broadcast on a giant screen set up in an adjacent soccer stadium for an additional 50,000 people unable to obtain entry.
“As a teenager, I studied Nelson Mandela in school,” said Globetrotters veteran Wun “The Shot” Versher, who was part of the team that visited South Africa. “For me, it was the biggest thing I have ever experienced as a Globetrotter.
“I was able to shake Nelson Mandela’s hand, and even though it was brief, those few seconds were something I will never forget. Knowing everything that he went through, and knowing that he could have had a great deal of anger inside … he was an extremely humble man and had a very peaceful aura about him.
“For the Globetrotters to make the trip and entertain so many African people was, I feel, a culmination of everything the Globetrotters had done in their history to that point – building bridges through the sport of basketball.”
A player at the time, and now a Globetrotters coach, Barry Hardy was part of the trip as well. “It was great playing for a liberated South Africa, freed from Apartheid,” said Hardy. “The best part of the trip was going to the Presidential offices and meeting Nelson Mandela, the man who was responsible for leading his country to equality and freedom. When I looked into his eyes, I felt proud meeting him knowing what he had been through and where he was at that point.
“When I shook his hand, and he said, ‘It’s a pleasure to meet you, Barry,’ that has been with me ever since. He was an icon, a pioneer, a man of great intention, a hero, a leader and a man whom many loved. He was selfless, putting his people and his country before himself. He could have given up the fight, but he never let his faith die. He never let the dreams of millions fade away, not even when he was imprisoned for 27 years.
The team made a return trip to the country in 1997 for the celebration of Mandela’s 79th birthday in Cape Town. Attended by several hundred South African children, the celebration helped raised more money for the Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund. On the return trip, the Globetrotters also played games and conducted clinics for kids in a half dozen cities in South Africa.
Both Versher and Hardy were fortunate enough to be part of that return trip. Says Versher, “In games I have played with the Globetrotters, no other crowds I have ever encountered were as excited as those crowds in South Africa. And when we visited kids, you could tell they absolutely loved it. I remember that the kids wanted to touch us a lot, which was heartwarming. The Globetrotters coming gave them a sense of hope, which they really needed at the time.
“Wherever we went, whether it was a clinic, a school or a hospital, I didn’t want to leave. I just wanted to reach out and touch and talk to as many people as I could. I believe that we Globetrotter players actually took more from the experience than the South African people. It was awesome.”
Says Hardy, “Nelson Mandela’s life has taught me so much. No dream is too big to come true. Like Mandela, you must have hope, faith, dignity, a strong will and a never-dying spirit to fight for what is right.”