The three-time NBA MVP and co-owner of baseball's Los Angeles Dodgers, Johnson was in Toronto on Friday to attend The Giant of Africa, an event honouring Mandela's legacy.
The Mandela event, held before the Toronto Raptors played the Cleveland Cavaliers, was hosted by Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri, the first African-born GM of a North American team.
Among those in attendance were former NBA stars Dikembe Mutombo, Charles Barkley and Tracy McGrady, Maple Leafs president Brendan Shanahan, Maple Leafs goalie Jonathan Bernier, Amadou Fall, the NBA's vice-president of development in Africa, former Toronto Argonauts star Michael (Pinball) Clemons, and UN Goodwill Ambassador and 1999 Miss Universe winner Mpule Kwelagobe.
Johnson said Mandela, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who became President of South Africa after spending 27 years in prison during the apartheid regime, was "a master" at bringing people together to facilitate change. The same approach, Johnson said, could help heal the racial tensions stoked by high-profile deaths in Ferguson, Missouri, and New York City that have led to rioting, looting and clashes between protesters and police.
"It's going to be important that these meetings take place and we can really bring about serious change because the distrust and the disconnect is huge," Johnson said. "Make no mistake about it, it's bigger than we've seen on TV.
"Blacks don't think that they're ever going to get a fair shake," Johnson said. "They think every time the police is coming it's going to be trouble, so we've got to really make sure that we can bring about serious change on everybody's side."
In a halftime TSN interview with Johnson, Barkley said a year after Mandela's death the same issues were going on.
"And I wish we had somebody in the United States who could say 'Listen, obviously some bad things are happening. We've got to find a way to make this thing work.' I just thought about that right now, how ironic we're celebrating Nelson Mandela, who was in prison for 27 years. And when he got out of prison, the majority of the blacks over there wanted to retaliate against the whites. And he said 'No. Let's make this thing work together.'
"It's ironic with all the crap that we have going on in the United States today, we don't have a leader in the United States that can do that."
Said Johnson: "Charles just said it. And it's the truth. And until we come up with that person, or multiple people, we will have the same issues."
'The mistrust that we have with law enforcement, the mistrust that we have with government, we need somehow to have a leader bring us together, say 'OK ,this is what we need to do,'" Johnson added. "And then on the other side, come together with whites and say 'OK this is what we all need to do to make it better for blacks and whites.'"
Asked what he hoped the night might accomplish, Ujiri said "I don't know…The world is not in a good place, in my opinion, and (Mandela) makes it better. I think he's going to be bigger, even though he's passed. He was bigger than life."
Ujiri organized the event, from which funds raised went to both the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Ujiri's Giants of Africa basketball program.
"Growing up I always remember watching the news with my dad and when the news would come on I just remember the images of fire, fire, fire in Soweto and all the fights on the streets. I'd sit there and I'd see my dad's reactions and that's when I really started to learn about Nelson Mandela," Ujiri said. "You study him as you grow up and you read and as I got older, it started meaning more to me what he's done, and the sacrifices he made. In 2006, when I met him, I think it completely changed everything.
"From then on, he's just somebody that I idolized."
Mandela died last Dec. 5 after a long illness. He was 95.
— With files from The Canadian Press