By Neil Davidson
THE CANADIAN PRESS
TORONTO _ Fighting jet lag and illness, Donovan Bailey still exuded enthusiasm Saturday as he walked the red carpet on a night honouring Nelson Mandela.
“He’s changed the way we look at the entire world,” the one-time world’s fastest man said of the South African icon.
“He influences every single culture to be better than what is that we are,” he added.
Mandela died two years ago Saturday at the age of 95. The fact that Bailey, who dined with Mandela in 1999, referred to him in the present offers proof of the influence that he continues to wield.
Bailey, who had flown in from Rome, was joined on the red carpet in the Toronto Raptors’ practice gymnasium by a diverse cast that included Raptors forward Bismack Biyombo, Ivory Coast soccer star Didier Drogba, WNBA star Ruth Riley, NBA icon and former Raptors GM Isiah Thomas, model Winnie Harlow, Toronto International Film Festival artistic director Cameron Bailey and NBA deputy commissioner Mark Tatum.
The occasion was the second annual “The Giant of Africa” tribute to the late South African president and Nobel Peace Prize winner. The evening, the brainchild of Raptors GM Masai Ujiri, supported the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Ujiri’s not-for-profit organization, Giants of Africa.
Sandwiched around the Raptors’ marquee game with the Golden State Warriors, the evening was billed as a celebration of Mandela’s life, legacy and ability to inspire positive change.
“Madiba give us hope,” said Ujiri, using Mandela’s clan name. “He gives us that positive energy … He makes us fearless and sport makes us fearless. And we’re lucky to be part of this.”
But Ujiri, a native of Nigeria, said you don’t have to be a leader of a big organization to make change.
“You can be a leader of your brother, you can be a leader of a young kid, you can be a leader of a young kid,” he said, wiping sweat off his brow under the hot TV lights. “That way you affect a life somewhere or somehow.”
Then he paused to take in the scene.
“Man, what a big day, what a great day. This is unbelievable for me to see.”
The stars in attendance had fond memories of Mandela.
“He’s the man who inspired me,” said Drogba, a soccer icon who now plays for the Montreal Impact. “He’s the man I wanted to be when I grew up. He’s an inspiration, as simple as that.”
Drogba, who also met Mandela, called him a humble man with no anger in his heart.
Thomas, who met Mandela in Detroit, had a similar recollection.
“The thing that I was struck by was just his soft heart. He had a very soft heart. He was able to maintain a soft heart through all the difficult times that he had experienced. He didn’t come out preaching hate, he came out preaching love and he used sport to bring people together.
“It influenced and empowered all of us and reminded us of how powerful the sport can be when we bring people together and we use it for good times.”
Biyombo was with the Charlotte Hornets when the first tribute night was held. The Congolese forward said he texted Ujiri to tell him how proud he was of him for organizing the event.
“I followed it from far away but to actually be here and see what it’s doing is an amazing feeling,” he said.
“Masai has done a lot for Africa. He’s continued to work in Africa in an amazing way. A lot of kids’ lives have been changed through what Masai is doing. There’s not much you can say to a guy like him but to thank him for his hard work.”
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