The late Nelson Mandela is globally regarded as a man who was selfless and who fought for freedom. He was a fighter that championed the cause of apartheid in South Africa. But what many don't know is that Mandela was also an athlete. A former amateur boxer that also enjoyed watching sports like American football and soccer, Mandela saw it as a barrier to fuse people together.

“It has the power to inspire,” Mandela once said. “It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.”

As word of his passing spread, many professional athletes took the opportunity to express their appreciation for his contributions to the world. Jamaican runner Usain Bolt tweeted: "Just here thinking that Mr. Mandela in prison for 27years is how long I've been alive..Words are inadequate to describe this man #RIPMandela"

After the Chicago Bulls' 107-87 victory over the Miami Heat on Thursday, Bulls center Joakim Noah ended his interview with TNT sideline reporter Craig Sager by yelling: "Rest in peace, Madiba!"

The sports world loved Mandela and he loved sports.

Nelson Mandela had a great relationship with the South African national rugby team when he became president of South Africa. That picture was painted vividly in the 2009 movie Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon.

Upon hearing of Mandela's death, 15 year NBA veteran Olden Polynice tweeted: "Had to take a day and reflect on Mr. Mandela and all he meant to South Africa and the world. We all should aspire to be like him. #AMANDLA"

Polynice has long been an advocate for social justice. In 1993, as a member of the Detroit Pistons, the Port-Au-Prince, Haiti native was the first U.S. athlete to ever join a hunger strike. He did it while in season to protest the treatment of HIV-positive Haitian refugees imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay and to challenge the Clinton Administration's refusal to change United States immigration policy toward Haitians. The Reverend Jesse Jackson also joined the fast. "It was motivated from seeing him and knowing his story, so it was easier for me to do what I did,” Polynice told Ebony Online by phone on Sunday.

Selected 8th overall by the Chicago Bulls in the 1987 NBA Draft, Polynice was traded to the Seattle SuperSonics in exchange for Scottie Pippen on draft day. After playing for five different teams in the NBA where he averaged 7.8 points and 6.7 rebounds per game, the 6'11 center is still working for a cause. “Mr. Mandela is like my hero,” he said. “I don't have sports heroes. Before there was Muhammad Ali or anybody else, there was Nelson Mandela for me.”

In 2010, President Clinton and Olden Polynice were on the right page of history. The retired NBA veteran joined forces with the Clinton-Bush Haiti Fund in efforts to help Haiti recover from the hurricane disaster in his homeland. “Coming from Haiti, a third world country, I can relate to [Mandela's trials and tribulations,” said Polynice.

Last year, Polynice, was named Ambassador to Haiti for sports and entertainment by Michell Martelly, President of Haiti. According to Polynice, the first book that he ever read was Mandela's autobiography, Long Walk To Freedom. He credits that book for inspiring him to be a goodwill ambassador of his country. “I think that's why I became an activist because of Nelson Mandela,” he said. I saw what he did for a country and for his people,”

Derek Anderson helped the University of Kentucky Wildcats win a NCAA National basketball Championship in 1996. He also won an NBA Championship as a member of the Miami Heat in 2006. Before the glitz and glamor of the NBA life, he was a parent by the age of fourteen, had been shot and stabbed and lost his mom to substance abuse. These days he's promoting his book, Stamina and credits Mandela, with whom he shares a July 18th birthday, as one of his heroes and a great source of inspiration.

“He let me know that love for my fellow brother was the strongest gift that could stop any and all hatred,” said Anderson.

Middleweight boxer Bernard Hopkins is known for striking fear in his opponents with his hard hits. With a career record of 54-6, The Executioner has beaten the likes of Oscar De La Hoya and Felix Trinidad. He and Mandela share two things in common: they both boxed and did time in jail. Hopkins changed his background picture on his phone to honor Nelson Mandela. “You know my history, you know my past,” Hopkins told

“I used to keep my jail mugshot on my phone screen to remind me. I took it off.”

Brandon Robinson is  digital journalist who covers sports and pop culture. You can find his work in The SOURCE, VIBE, SLAM, TD DAILY, Regal Radio and He is also a lecturer at NJIT in Newark, NJ. You can follow him on Twitter @Scoop B and see more of his work here.