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Why this photo matters: Nelson Mandela and the Detroit Pistons

Nelson Mandela and Detroit Pistons forever linked in iconic snapshot.

It might seem like just another awesome photo. A tribute to the great Nelson Mandela, who died Thursday at the age of 95. Detroit Bad Boys had a tweet to honor Mandela's passing. Maybe you saw it. Maybe you retweeted it.

But  perhaps it's time to consider the photo of Mandela, clad in the old-school gear of the then reigning champion Detroit Pistons, walking through the heart of Detroit in 1990, in a larger context.

Originally, I set out to answer a simple question. Just how did Nelson Mandela get photographed in a Pistons hat and jacket? And as with most of the best sports stories, it's about much more than sports and much more complex than I was prepared for.

The man who stands before you is not a stranger -Nelson Mandela

It is the story of the triumph against apartheid, of perseverance, of a great American city, of organized labor, and, of course, a great basketball team.

Mandela wore the jacket and hat in the early morning hours on June 29. The outfit was a gift of stars Isiah Thomas and John Salley the night before when Mandela spoke to an enthralled crowd of 49,000 people at old Tiger Stadium.

The celebratory concert at Tiger Stadium featured a host of dignitaries, including then-Mayor Coleman Young, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Rosa Parks, who Salley got to personally escort to her seat, and a 2,000-member choir. Celebrities and political power players paid thousands of dollars for a seat, while local charities and community organizations brought in youth groups, and supplied tickets to people walking the streets of downtown Detroit.

There, Mandela talked about his imprisonment, his struggle against apartheid, his bonds with the working people of Detroit and his love of "Motortown" music.

But that begged another question. Why Detroit?

After all, when Mandela visited the U.S. in 1990 to raise awareness and funds for the African National Congress, he only stopped in eight cities. Why did Detroit make the cut?

In jail and behind the thick prison walls, we could hear loud and clear your voice calling for our release. We felt your impatience with our enslavement -Nelson Mandela

It was certainly no accident. Before his visit to Tiger Stadium, Mandela visited the Ford River Rouge Assembly Plant in Dearborn. Hundreds of mostly black union workers anxiously waited at the historic plant, one of the first to be fully integrated, with pro-Mandela buttons, shirts and signs.

Poor health and a tight schedule forced Mandela to be hours late, and he was only able to talk for six minutes. But he would later say it was one of the warmest receptions he received on his tour.

"The man who stands before you is not a stranger," Mandela told cheering auto workers, according to Associated Press reports. "I am a member of the UAW; I am your flesh and blood. I am your comrade."

In an LA Times account of the visit, Mandela remarked, "In jail and behind the thick prison walls, we could hear loud and clear your voice calling for our release. We felt your impatience with our enslavement."

In fact, some of those loudest voices in America came from Detroit. More specifically they came from the UAW.

The UAW and other powerful unions in the United States were the driving force of organized labor being an outspoken international critic of the South African government and apartheid. In 1978, the UAW withdrew funds from banks with ties to Pretoria, the South African capital. Unions led the divestment movement against South Africa, removing money from banks that did business there and boycotting companies that did the same.

Cities and states were pressured to do the same, removing billions of dollars in pension funds. Eventually, 26 states, 80 cities and 150 colleges as well as many other unions did the same, reported the Washington Post at the time of Mandela's visit.

Even Congress was forced to act, making divestment official policy in the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act. And in a signal of the power of organized labor and the anti-Apartheid movement in general, even after President Ronald Reagan vetoed the bill, a Republican-controlled Senate overruled the veto by super-majority vote.

Upon visiting the plant, former UAW President Douglas Fraser noted the significance of Mandela's visit to the Dearborn plant. As reported by UPI:

Former UAW President Douglas Fraser said there was a ''special nostalgia'' in Mandela visiting the Rouge plant, where he said union members were once treated with brutality.

''It's a certain kind of kinship,'' Fraser said. ''It's a revolution, a fight for dignity and democracy. He's fighting for much more.''

And when I look at the photo of Mandela in that Pistons jacket, I don't necessarily reflect on the Bad Boy Pistons or pine for championship glory. I think of what the picture represents.

The Pistons, to me, are embedded in the blue collar manufacturing blood of Detroit. The Bad Boy Pistons a testament to the hard work that comes with being bred in the Midwest.

The Going to Work Pistons a testament to those who punch the clock every day, taking pride in what they do, and being even more proud of putting food on the table.

And if that Pistons jacket reflects Detroit, then it surely reflects the union roots of the great American city. And while union membership continues to decline, and the city of Detroit tries to crawl its way out of bankruptcy with the pensions of retired union members sitting anxiously on the chopping block, it's important to remember the triumphant role unions played in applying the political and financial pressure to release Mandela, even when it wasn't popular to do so.

So, yes, it was just a jacket. And basketball is just a game. And in the grand scheme of things it doesn't really matter. But one of the most important men who walked the earth in my lifetime is wearing a jacket and hat of my favorite sports team walking through a city I am ridiculously proud of.

So maybe it's not just a photo after all. Maybe it's something more.