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Central Florida’s Lapchick recalls special moments with Mandela

By Marta Lawrence

When Central Florida’s Richard Lapchick, an outspoken anti-apartheid activist, introduced his family to Mandela during a long reception line, Mandela looked at Lapchick’s sleeping daughter and jokingly exclaimed, “Finally, someone that doesn’t care if they meet me!”

As millions mourn the loss of Mandela, Lapchick tweeted yesterday that he was headed to the memorial service to say goodbye to the man that inspired a career and changed his life. “Flying to SAfrica today for services for Pres Mandela,” he wrote. “I was at the inauguration and need to be there.”

The day his death was announced, Lapchick recalled the personal impact the inauguration had and the intimate moment he shared with the newly inaugurated president.

On the evening of his inauguration as the first president of South Africa, Nelson Mandela left Pretoria, where revelers were celebrating his election, and boarded a helicopter for Johannesburg to watch South Africa play a soccer match against Zambia.

Richard Lapchick, anti-apartheid activist and current director for the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida, joined the newly minted president for the game.

“Being able to attend the soccer match with him was clearly a remarkable, intimate moment,” Lapchick said following Mandela’s death. “It allowed me to ask a question: ‘Mr. President, with all the things that were going on in Pretoria to celebrate your becoming president, why did you come here?’”

Mandela told Lapchick he wanted his people to know that he acknowledged and was grateful for the sacrifices they made during the international sports boycott – and that those sacrifices hastened his election.

“For me, there are quite a few ‘power of sports’ stories,” said Lapchick, “but that’s the biggest power of sports story I know.”

Lapchick helped lead the sports boycott and was brutally assaulted for those efforts. In 1978, while the Davis Cup was nearing cancellation, assailants attacked him and carved a (misspelled) racial epithet into Lapchick’s stomach.

His apartment was also ransacked while he led a protest of a South African rugby team. The episodes were later chronicled in Lapchick’s book, “Broken Promises.”

Lapchick was no novice in understanding the consequences of standing up for racial equality. His father, Joe Lapchick, was a hall-of-fame coach who coached 20 seasons at St. Johns University before becoming the first coach of the fledgling New York Knicks. 

The senior Lapchick was responsible for signing the first African-American player in the NBA in the early 1950s. The decision garnered death threats and intense public scrutiny.

Given his personal history, Lapchick describes witnessing Mandela’s inauguration as “one of the most important days of my life.”

“It was an overwhelming event,” he said.

On his way to the inauguration driving from Johannesburg to Victoria, Lapchick could see military equipment along the way.

“I realized that all that weaponry that had been used to oppress the 81 percent of South African people of color was suddenly going to be turned over to this man of peace,” he said. “It was an incredible statement, and it made me realize that anything is possible.”

Richard Lapchick’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida publishes the annual College Sport Racial and Gender Report Card, examining the composition of college sport teams and administrations. The Endowed Chair and Director of the DeVos Sport Business Management program at UCF, Lapchick is an outspoken advocate for inclusion efforts and has presented on several NCAA panels on a variety of topics.