Wes Unseld met his share of prominent people over 20 years as an NBA player and coach, but which experience stands out among them?

"Sitting down [to dinner] with Nelson Mandela," Unseld said unequivocally. "I've been very fortunate to meet a lot of important people, but I didn't have the feeling that I was meeting someone as truly important as him [Mandela]. . . . I came away with the feeling that this is a guy whom history will record as a truly great individual."

Unseld, now a Washington Bullets vice president, will have another opportunity to meet Mandela -- South Africa's first black president -- when he joins this year's NBA South Africa Tour, which begins in Johannesburg today.

Besides the Bullets Hall of Famer, the tour, which ends Saturday, will include NBA All-Star centers Patrick Ewing, Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning, guard John Crotty, coach Lenny Wilkens, NBA commissioner David Stern, and Charles Grantham, executive director of the players association.

The NBA players and coaches will hold free clinics in Johannesburg and Cape Town. The delegation is scheduled to have dinner with Mandela one night during its six-day stay, which, Unseld said, gives him a chance to see "what has transpired, what changes have opened up. But I'm realistic enough to know that if there are any changes, they will be minor changes."

For Unseld and Mutombo, this is the second year in a row they have gone to South Africa. But Unseld said it was unclear if this tour would become an annual event.

"That would, of course, have to come from Mr. Stern," Unseld said. "But with the interest that [the NBA has] shown, the NBA is on the right track cultivating what could be the next real threshold of talent."

For Mutombo, the inclusion of former Georgetown teammates Ewing and Mourning -- members of Dream Team I and II, respectively -- on this trip is something of a dream itself.

"I cannot believe they're coming with me to Africa," said Mutombo, a native of Zaire. "It's like a gift for me. . . . I'm really glad they gave me this opportunity, and I hope it's a chance for them to see more of what they haven't seen and where I come from."

Unseld noted that delegations such as this one and the international exposure of the recently victorious Dream Team II at last week's World Championship of Basketball help the NBA expand its efforts to reach basketball fans worldwide.

"There's a lot of interest out there," he said. "What we're trying to do is not only introduce the game to the people living there, but also show what the game can do for them. It can be used to reach a friendship between people."

Unseld noted how the sport bridged the chasm along racial lines when he played for his high school basketball team in Louisville, Ky.

"We couldn't eat in certain restaurants, we couldn't stay in certain hotels," Unseld said. "But basketball opened up things that weren't open [off the court]. We could do things that people in general could not. We showed them that maybe we weren't so bad."

Despite the obvious prominence of the three towering centers accompanying Unseld, he said he and Wilkens have their own agenda when they go to South Africa.

"These kids will need to learn something more than hook shots," Unseld said. "We'll be trying to teach them something different than what Dikembe, Patrick and Alonzo teach them."

Although Unseld said "everybody" benefited from the presence of the NBA delegation, he also said the children of South Africa were the happiest to see them.

"You just have to see the light on their faces," Unseld said. "[Basketball is] such a universal sport. It's simple in its message. It's as simple for them as it was simple for black kids in this country. Just get a ball and a hoop."

And basketball's message?

"That we can all get on a court and be a team," Unseld said. "To break it down to an essence, that's what it is."

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