Nelson Mandela died today, prompting politicians and cultural leaders around the world to comment on the former South African president who helped lead his country out from under an apartheid regime of segregation enforced by the minority white population against the majority black South Africans.
A powerful testament to Mandela came courtesy of the Boston Celtics legend Bill Russell, a man who -- like Mandela -- experienced racism, bore it with dignity, and through that fortitude helped bring about social change. During a TNT interview in February, Russell told former NBA star Chris Webber about meeting Mandela in Paris. The anecdote reveals something about both men.
Russell's wife, who is white, was concerned that Mandela wouldn't want her to join them for the meeting. Mandela was the person Russell wanted to meet most in the world, but not badly enough to leave his wife behind.
"If [Mandela] doesn't like the fact that I'm married to you, he can go straight to hell," Russell recalled telling his wife.
Of course, she had nothing to worry about. "And so, we go there, and he's across the room, and we walk in," Russell told Webber. "He gets up, walks over to us, kind of pushes me aside, put his arms around her and said, 'I'm so glad you're here. It's such a pleasure to meet you.'" It's hard not to think that Mandela anticipated her discomfort and immediately worked to put her at ease, showing no small amount of empathy and grace.
Russell asked Mandela how he accomplished the work that he did. "Everybody predicted there would be a bloodbath," Mandela said, according to Russell. "No. I am a Mandela and I get my philosophy from my tribe and if I had acted the way the apartheid government acted, I'd have to say they were right all the time. But I am a Mandela and that's where I get my philosophy and my thoughts. They are not my role models."
Webber had asked Russell how he tolerated the racism he experienced as an NBA player in the 1950s and 1960s.
"I'm nowhere near that great," Russell said, referring to Mandela, "but I get my thoughts and my philosophy from the Russell family."