Dikembe Mutombo commands attention, and it’s not because he towers over people at 218 cm, or the fascinating fact that he speaks nine languages (including five African dialects) or blocked 3,289 shots during his 18-season NBA career. Simply put, the big fellow has lived a remarkable life.
Who else entertains dinner guests with stories about Hakeem Olajuwon, the U.S. Secret Service, George W. Bush, George Foreman, Muhammad Ali, Allen Iverson (and his practice habits), Larry Brown and Jeff Van Gundy?
Who else has the vision, patience and generosity to build a $29 million, 300-bed hospital in Kinshasa, where political corruption would dissuade all others with the resources from picking up the bill?
Who else is known as much for his defensive prowess as his signature finger wag after all those blocked shots?
“He is a real gentleman and was always a real credit to our league,” former NBA head coach Bob Hill told Hoop Scoop recently. “I coached against him many times and he was always a challenge to prepare for. He was a dominate force defensively. We were all very fortunate that he was a bit limited offensively. He always played very hard.”
Mutombo, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo (previously known as Zaire), turns 46 on Monday. He remains busy and productive, and his linguistics and diplomacy degrees from Georgetown University, in Washington, D.C., have come in handy.
The eight-time NBA All-Star and first four-time Defensive Player of the Year in league history (Ben Wallace was the second) was the guest of honor during a recent Foreign Sportswriters Association of Japan meeting in Tokyo. As the NBA’s global ambassador, he was in the capital city for the Basketball Without Borders Asia program from June 13-16, which featured 50 players ages 18 and under representing 18 nations in the region, including Australia and New Zealand.
Japan’s first-ever Basketball Without Borders camp ran in conjunction with a clinic for children in Sendai. The significance of helping others — which baseball Hall of Famer Jackie Robinson once summed up by saying, “A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives” — is an integral part of Mutombo’s daily routine.
“It’s not just because of basketball,” Mutombo said. “We also want to be part of the rebuilding of something that was very tragic that happened in this society. We all witnessed the tsunami and earthquake last year in March and the effect that it (had) on young people, old people and those that lost their houses, their loved ones, their mothers, their fathers, their cousins, their friends and colleagues from school.
“We know that Japan is going through a lot, and the NBA family was there. When the event happened, we raised money for the (recovery).”
What were Mutombo’s impressions after visiting Sendai?
“I was very pleased to see the results and the progress that was being made, and also the spirit of the people in Sendai. I think that was the most shocking thing,” he said.
Mutombo described what he saw this way: “We might have gone through a lot today, but tomorrow we know that our lives will be better, and they are working through that, and seeing young people smiling and hugging us instead of us asking them for a hug. It was great. We had a great time, and I think it was maybe one of the best camps we’ve ever had in Asia.”
While in Miyagi Prefecture, the local residents’ appreciative, polite attitude included “young people telling me thank you for coming to see us,” he said, smiling,
Mutombo’s off-court work isn’t restricted to NBA projects. He’s served as a UNICEF global ambassador and spokesman for international relief agency CARE (HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention), and the Polio Eradication Campaign in Africa.
Those deeds have not gone unnoticed. He’s been inducted into the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame and been the recipient of the Laureus Sport for Good Award, the NBA’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award and the National Civil Rights Museum Sports Legacy Award.
When the Denver Nuggets made Mutombo the No. 4 pick in the 1991 NBA Draft — a year after former Kyoto Hannaryz guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf was taken third overall by the Nuggets — the widespread globalization of the sport was still in its infancy and the Chicago Bulls were just starting to become a dynasty.
Without a doubt, Mutombo carried a heavy burden on his broad shoulders.
“I was the third African player to come to the NBA after Manute Bol, who we lost last year, and Hakeem Olajuwon,” he noted. “Myself, when I came to the NBA, I set a goal that I don’t want to be the last African player to play in the NBA. I don’t want to see myself one day leaving the game knowing that I didn’t get a chance to do nothing for so many young Africans who are hoping one day to have the same chance and the same opportunity to play the game of basketball at the next level.”
Off the court, Mutombo became active in running clinics in Africa after his second pro season. As David Stern, the NBA commissioner, embraced the game’s globalization, Mutombo played an important role in reaching out to the masses, preaching the value of education, hard work and community outreach.
“I’m pleased today, as I’m speaking to you today, how many young African players are playing today, how many young Europeans, and Asian and South American (players) are playing today,” said Mutombo, without needing to cite the fact that Oklahoma City big man Serge Ibaka was born in Congo. “Our league is spreading quite dramatically. We are now being watched in almost 225 countries. . . “
What’s more, Basketball Without Borders has helped pave the way for 200-250 high school and college players now honing their skills in the United States, he said. Being a part of this global outreach for much of his adult life, Mutombo is a well-known figure everywhere he goes.
Even in Tokyo. While leisurely strolling through the megacity, he was approached by elementary and middle school students, who asked him, “Are you Mutombo?”
“I left the game a long time ago, but to see that people still remember you, maybe because of the finger wave, which remains a big signature to so many people, I’m glad that the impact it’s made around the world,” he said.
Mutombo retired in 2009, his fifth and final season with the Houston Rockets. His career took him from the Nuggets to the Atlanta Hawks, Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks and Rockets. He appeared in 1,196 regular-season games and 101 playoff contests, including a pair of NBA Finals, in 2000-01 with the Sixers (lost to the Los Angeles Lakers) and 2002-03 with the Nets (defeated by the San Antonio Spurs).
Along the way, Mutombo toiled in the low post against the likes of Olajuwon, fellow Georgetown University alums Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning and a big bruiser named Shaquille O’Neal.
Who was his toughest matchup?
“I always say that it was (Nigerian legend) Hakeem Olajuwon. Not just because he was from Africa, but the guy was just too good. He was so difficult to guard,” Mutombo said. “No matter what, you knew he was going to give you 30 (points), and it didn’t really matter if you were the shot block champion or a great defender . . . you knew that when you’re facing Hakeem Olajuwon, he is going to get his 30 or 40 if you’re not lucky . . . so I think that was my challenge of my career. I did my best to make sure that he didn’t score more than 34 (his jersey number).”
Guarding Shaq was never a simple assignment for Mutombo.
“It’s not easy when you are taking more than 440 pounds (220 kg) coming to your chest,” he said of the future Hall of Famer’s brute force.
Though he confidently stood his ground in the paint and proved season after season that he was one of the game’s great post defenders, Mutombo is also remembered for what he did after blocking all those shots: the finger wave, his trademark.
It developed by happenstance.
“I can remember when I went to Denver I used to block shots, and I heard that shaking my head was maybe not the best way (to celebrate), because (while) shaking my head I was shaking everything inside my brain, so I said, ‘No, no, no.’
“The first time I did it the fans loved it, even though I ended up getting a few technical fouls,” he recalled. “But it ended up working very well for me, until one day we were playing Boston, and I think I blocked 11 shots, and (then-Celtics coach) Rick Pitino was there on the side and he wasn’t happy. He complained. He sent a letter to the commissioner the next day: ‘This was an embarrassment for my players to be in Boston Garden and . . . one person was putting the finger in their face and blah, blah, blah,’ ” was how Mutombo remembered the Celtics coach’s protest.
“The next day the commissioner called and said, ‘No more, Dikembe. You can’t do that. If you want to do your finger wave, you’ve got to face the fans. Wave at the fans; you can’t wave at the players no more.’ But it was very difficult to try to look at the fans all the time because I didn’t block the fans’ shots, I blocked the players’ shots.
“I lost a lot of money with that finger wave, trust me. I got fined a lot by the league.”
In Mutombo’s memory, he played under 16 head coaches during his illustrious career. Two mentors stand out as favorites in a journey that began with 18 points, 16 rebounds and three blocked shots against the Golden State Warriors in his NBA debut on Nov. 1, 1991: Larry Brown and Jeff Van Gundy.
Larry Brown is “still one of the most respectable coaches in the NBA,” Mutombo declared, “and Jeff Van Gundy (now working as a color analyst) . . . we call him ‘The General.’ That man taught me something in life. He taught me, ‘Dikembe, it’s not about your age; it’s about what you can bring every day on the court. You have such a great gift of playing such good basketball and good defense. . .”
In his third season with Denver, Mt. Mutombo and the Nuggets delivered one of the NBA’s most stunning achievements of the past quarter century. As the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, the 42-40 Nuggets faced the top-seeded Seattle SuperSonics (63-19) in the opening round of the playoffs.
They lost the first two games on the road before winning five straight games to close out the series, one in which Mutombo swatted 31 shots. It truly signaled his arrival on the national scene as a defensive force.
“It was surprising but, to me, it was a dream come true,” he said, looking back at that seminal series. “We had a wonderful coach then in Dan Issel who made us believe. (He told us), ‘Guys, you have nothing to lose. You’re young, you’re talent, the world’s already wrote you off, so why don’t you just go and play your game and be the best you can be?’ “
“With my ability to block shots, that’s something that was able to help me break the NBA playoff record for blocked shots (in a five-game series).”
To this day, Mutombo, a married father of six children, lists his top NBA memories as beating the Sonics in the 1993-94 playoffs and reaching the Finals for the first time.
“That’s the dream of everyone as a player . . . and even though I got into the Finals (two seasons later) with the New Jersey Nets, in Philly was something special, and playing with Allen Iverson, it was a gift. To be there when Allen was just full of talent . . . all I had to do was block shots and rebound, it was so easy,” he said with a laugh.
Put it this way: Iverson was a true original. His demeanor and mind-set set him apart from the rest.
Or as Mutombo explained: “He’s a young man that has a heart bigger than his size, and his approach to the game is totally different than anybody else I’ve ever played with. (Iverson didn’t embrace practice), “but when the game came on he had 40- to 50-point ability. You just don’t find that in the NBA today. You don’t.”
Sure, he said, Kevin Durant, LeBron James or Kobe Bryant can score points in bunches, “but to be consistent like Allen Iverson did, I don’t think we are going to find those talents in the NBA today.”
More than two decades after arriving at Georgetown on an academic scholarship, Mutombo is clearly satisfied with the direction life has taken him.
“To tell you the truth, basketball really worked out (for me),” he said. “If I didn’t play basketball, I would have ended up working in a hospital or been one of the tallest doctors . . . and bumping my head everywhere in the operation room somewhere. But I’m also happy that even though I didn’t go into becoming a doctor, my main concern in life has always been improving the condition in life of the people in the continent of Africa, and I’m proud that I’ve taken the initiative to go back to the continent.”
Long before he became a household name, Mutombo understood the power of sports to unite people and deliver excitement. After all, he saw how the 20th century’s biggest African sporting spectacle — the Rumble in the Jungle, the world heavyweight championship bout between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali on Oct. 30, 1974, at Stade du 20 Mai in Kinshasa, his hometown — brought a worldwide audience to his hometown during strongman Mobutu Sese Seko’s reign.
As an 8-year-old boy, Mutombo was, oh, so close, though he had to piece together the action from a nearby location.
“I was born and raised a block away from the stadium,” he told the enraptured FSAJ audience
“My late mother used to own a kiosk where she used to sell soda and cigarettes in the stadium,” he added.
Because the fight was staged in the middle of the night, he had to stay home. That didn’t mean, however, that young Dikembe, the seventh of 10 children, could sleep.
“From the stadium to the house, you could hear all the noise that was coming in,” he recalled, while labeling it “one of the great experiences for his home country.”
“It was a good fight. They put Africa on the map,” he said, mentioning the fight was shown on TVs around the world.
Years later, Mutombo met Ali and Foreman in the United States.
Indeed, Mutombo’s deep voice carries weight when he speaks about issues that deeply affect his homeland and beyond.
U.S. President George W. Bush valued the prestige of having Mutombo in his company, and had a Secret Service staffer contact Mutombo, inviting him to the State of the Union Address in January 2007.
Speaking with deep convictions, Mutombo admits he refuses to believe that his nation cannot dramatically improve how it cares for its citizens.
“What can we do as a world to improve the mortality rate? That’s something that bothers me day and night,” revealed Mutombo, whose involvement with Basketball Without Borders has taken him to all corners of Africa and numerous nations in Europe and Asia. “That’s why I devote myself on these projects, where I have more than 420 doctors and nurses that work for me. It has not been easy.
“My goal is to see if people one day in the Congo will live past 58 years old. Right now the mortality rate is 42 for men and 43½ for women, and myself I lost so many family members because of this lack of health care.
“There were no hospitals built in Congo in 45 years until I went and built a hospital. It leaves you with a lot of questions — why? Why the government doesn’t want to do it? What is holding them back?
“(Then), a brand new hospital was built by the government with almost a 1,200-bed (capacity), and it was inaugurated two years ago, in June 2010, but there have been no beds and no medical equipment inside that building.”
Does Mutombo have political aspirations?
“Yeah, to become a Senator one day in the U.S.,” he said with a laugh.
“I think I might run for Senate one day. . . . I don’t see why not,” he added, reminding the dinner crowd that he studied political science at Georgetown.
“I have a political feeling but it’s better to be outside the box than to be inside. I like to give them my opinion because I’m not in politics.
“I’ll wait till maybe 2016 or 2020,” he said.
For more information on Mutombo’s ongoing projects, visit the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation website: www.dmf.org