It was 1994 and the media assignment of a lifetime: a week in South Africa, reporting on the NBA’s goodwill mission to a country transitioning from Apartheid. Along for the ride were Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo, the Georgetown mafia then flooding the NBA with quality centers. NBA commissioner David Stern, anxious to spread the visibility of basketball beyond American borders, was on board, too. And yours truly, barely more than a cub reporter, restless at the chance to become, for one week, an international correspondent.
Well, actually, there was only one mission for me on this trip: to meet Nelson Mandela. We were told in advance that the South African leader had penciled the NBA’s traveling party into his plans, and a meet-and-greet was being prepared. I could’ve flown from JFK Airport to Cape Town without a plane. Understand that Mandela was perhaps the most famous man in the world, and his fame was built through courage, leadership and humanitarian efforts, not from some soulless reason. His story, from political prisoner to world leader, resonated with millions. And I’d have the chance to ask him a few questions. Um, yeah. Hell yeah.
Our flight took us first to Johannesburg for a few days. There, the Georgetown centers conducted a youth clinic on a playground basketball court, built partly by NBA funds in Soweto. It was an amazing day. The weather was gorgeous, and the kids, mostly elementary school, were organized, polite, gracious and tremendously curious about anything American. They mostly wanted to know about hip-hop culture and rappers. (This is why I cringe at some of the lyrics demeaning women and glorifying the N-word. It isn’t enough that we teach this to a young audience in our own country; we also poison the world with it.) There were a few kids I wanted to adopt, right on the spot, and if I’d taken that trip years later, when I was much more mature and able to raise a family, maybe I would have.
After the clinic, the traveling party headed south to Cape Town, one of the most scenic cities anywhere. Think San Francisco with a huge, flat-topped mountain in the background (Table Mountain). There was a ferry ride to Robbin Island, where Mandela was jailed for decades by the government for protesting, among other things, the atrocities of racial separation and white empowerment.
The next day was Mandela Day. Two white vans were waiting in front of our hotel in the morning. We were driven beyond the city and through a hillside, under heavy security. The vans pulled to a stop outside a gated compounded. His house. We waited for about 30 minutes, and then the gates opened. Halfway there. After another security check, we were led inside Mandela’s house and told to wait in the lobby. Another 30 minutes went by, but what’s 30 minutes for someone who has waited a lifetime — well, not quite, but you get the idea — to interview him?
An aide finally walked down a winding, marble staircase and into the lobby. He wasn’t smiling. This wasn’t good. Not. At. All. “I’m sorry,” he said, “but Mr. Mandela, as you know, had emergency cataract surgery the other day, and under doctor’s orders, he cannot take any visitors today.”
Ten minutes later, after I scraped my sobbing, depressed and rubbery body off the floor, we hustled back into the vans for the longest trip of my life. Even now, I’ve never felt such a drastic change of emotion so quickly, from the euphoria of anticipation to the deflating, sucker-punched sensation of disappointment. So close. So damned close.
Looking back, I understand I was only half a reporter that day. I was also a cheerleader without the slightest bit of impartiality, but I don’t regret that. Not that day. Not toward that man. And speaking of regrets, never getting the chance to meet and interview Mandela remains my biggest as a reporter, especially now, the day of his passing at age 95.
On my first day on the job, right out of college, someone once told me that, in this business, you’ll miss more stories than you’ll get. I only missed one. The others, I can’t even remember.