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World in His Hands

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At 41, NBA star Dikembe Mutombo is still a defensive force to be reckoned with under the rim. Off the court, his life-saving missions in his native Africa extend his already considerable reach.

In a Philadelphia photography studio just beneath the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, Dikembe Mutombo is alternating poses with globes cradled in his massive hands. The most colorful of three spheres is actually a basketball. Another is on loan from Friends Select School, which he’ll later thank with one of his unique—almost artistic—autographs.

The photographer moves Mutombo back three steps, then resets two lines of black electrical tape to position his feet. Instantly, the 41-year-old NBA veteran is at a makeshift foul line. “I want to make sure the ball (the globe) goes that way (toward the imaginary basket), so I’m not like Shaquille O’Neal,” he jokes, in reference to the Miami Heat superstar, who’s a notorious hack at the free-throw line.

Wearing a dark blue Polo sweater over a fine red-striped shirt and sleek designer blue jeans, Mutombo locates Africa on cue and pushes the globe toward the camera. The focus is on the Congo, birthplace of the 7-foot-2 four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year.

“I bet you never shot anyone as tall as me,” he says. “[Former NBA player] Manute Bol was 7-foot-7; that’s tall. I have to look [up] when I’m talking to (7-foot-6) Yao Ming, my teammate [on the Houston Rockets].”

Mutombo’s youngest son, 4-year-old Ryan, wears size 8 and 10 clothes. “I think he’ll be the tallest one in the family,” his
father says.

Now in his 17th and final season, Mutombo, who after joining the Sixers mid-season in 2001 led them to the NBA Finals for the first time since 1983, has owned a home in Villanova ever since. His children have all attended Episcopal Academy.

While he’s rejected record numbers of shots on the court, off it, the world only knows his kind humanitarian touch. If defense makes you a winner on the court, Mutombo’s “The Great Defender” off it, too. During his 2007 State of the Union address, even President George W. Bush acknowledged Mutombo’s work. Mutombo, who was there, received a long ovation.

“People always want to shake my hand, but not because of basketball anymore—but for the world impact I’m having,” he says. “Today, 75 percent of the people’s hands I shake don’t want to talk to me about basketball. To them, it’s like I never even blocked a shot in my life, and I’m like, ‘Come on!’”

Pre-season, though, basketball calls were pouring in: Are you coming? Have you signed? Will you sign? He’d only give Houston a verbal commitment, and a promise to report to training camp on time, and sign then, giving him one less travel date. At camp, he said he’d only practice once a day, not twice, to save his body.

“My kids still enjoy it, so I want to let them enjoy it,” he says about playing one more season. “But I want to make sure I still enjoy it, too.”

By now, his farewell tour is underway. “When they come to Philadelphia to see Mutombo play for the last time, they’ll know it,” Mutombo says. “It’ll be nice in Atlanta (another former team), nice in all the cities. I want everyone to know Mutombo’s getting out. Then, when they see me playing pickup with my sons in the park, or with some guys with beer guts, they’ll know to leave me alone.”

Fat chance.

Rolling that globe in his hands, Mutombo knows the world’s watching him.

“Everyday I wake up, I have to look behind my back,” he says. “Everyone wants to know what direction I’m taking, but we’re all elevated by God to be in the position we’re in, and we should be thankful. Whatever route anyone takes, you can be influential to others.”

 

t’s been 20 years since Dikembe Mutombo arrived in the United States on an academic scholarship to Georgetown
University. This year marks the 10th anniversary of the Atlanta-based Dikembe Mutombo Foundation in Atlanta, of which he’s chairman and president. A Pan-African altruist, Mutombo has deployed much of his attention and wealth to South Africa.

The foundation focuses on primary healthcare and disease prevention and the promotion of health policy, research and education. It cooperates with the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control. Mutombo has spoken at the United Nations Poverty Day in New York. He works with United for Children, the United Against AIDS campaign, CARE and the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders.

“I stand for so many causes,” he admits from a couch in the studio. “I’m against suffering, poverty, violence, pain and disease. I’m against what’s happening in Iraq. Why must so many people die as the world watches and doesn’t do anything until it’s too late—until bodies are all over the street? Why leave a child in Africa who’s unable to walk or move his arms because no one has 35 cents to buy a vaccine? The greatest thing in life is to have a great relationship with human life. It’s not Biblical, but it should be reflected in every human being.”

In July in his native Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), he presided over the dedication and opening of the $29-million, 300-bed Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital and Research Center, named for his late mother. He contributed more than $15 million of his own money to the project. For years, his foundation shipped ambulances to Kinshasa, along with hundreds of hospital beds and thousands of doses of de-worming medication.

Ironically, groundbreaking for the 10-acre hospital site was Sept. 15, 2001, four days after 9-11. “This will tell you how God works,” Mutombo says before explaining a last-minute change of flight plans.

He and a cousin flew Sept. 9 instead of Sept. 11 as originally planned. They were already across the Congo River and eating lunch when CNN detailed the tragedy. Mutombo considered canceling the ceremony, then decided “it was God’s will that we were already in the Congo, so God wanted us to do this work.”

Amid gross poverty and a bleak healthcare picture—including an HIV/AIDS epidemic, the 20th century’s worst polio outbreak and a life expectancy of 42-47 years—the Congo held its first free elections in almost 40 years in July 2006. In a region that still ranks among the world’s largest producers of industrial diamonds, now it’s Mutombo’s hospital that’s the jewel of the continent. “It was a joy
like you cannot believe,” he says of the facility’s opening.

At Georgetown, Mutombo began in pre-med. His dream was to become a doctor and return to the Congo. But in his second year, John Thompson convinced him to try out for his basketball team. After graduating with dual degrees in linguistics (he’s fluent in nine languages) and diplomacy, he was a first-round draft pick of the Denver Nuggets.

This year, Mutombo was inducted into the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame and received the Jackie Robinson Humanitarian Award from the United States Sports Academy. He has dozens of similar awards. As far back as 1996, he paid for the Zairian women’s basketball team’s Olympic trip to Atlanta, and for his homeland’s track and field uniforms and expenses.

“Trouble chases us,” he rationalizes. “Either [trouble] grabs you, or you walk away from it. It’s not easy to be famous. We live under the spotlight—everyday—and people don’t know that. I’ve been blessed with much luck, with my family, and with someone like John Thompson. All he could do is talk and advise, ‘You can walk away, or you can practice three to five hours a day and become the best defensive player in the game.’ I’d play 39 minutes [for him] and not shoot once. All I could do is rebound and block shots. He told me, ‘Just do that, and one day I’ll make you a rich man.’”


WHILE MUTOMBO’S global outreach is exemplary, so is his local charitable work. At Epis-copal Academy, he attended “Dancing for Darfur,” which raised $10,000 to combat genocide in Sudan. Then-senior Mallika Khandelwal of Gladwyne reached out to Mutombo for her project—and he reached back.

Most EA parents are prominent but private. Mutombo is prominent and public. “He’s a huge mountain of man, but he has a wonderful spirit and generosity,” EA head of school Ham Clark says.

With seven children, Mutombo and his wife, Rose Nseya Mutombo, could easily lose track of their flock. Four are adopted nieces and nephews—Reagan (named after the former president), 24; Pearla, 23; Nancy (named after Mrs. Reagan), 22; and Harouna, 18. Of his own, Carrie, 10, is in fifth grade; Jean-Jacques (J.J.), 6, is in first grade; and Ryan’s in pre-K. Next June, the family is moving full-time to its second home in Atlanta. Mutombo will turn 42 that month, and he’ll be retired.

His own upbringing in the Congo, of course, is so different from his children’s on the Main Line. Every day, he tells them how no one drove him to school, or how his wake-up call was 4:30 a.m., not 6:30 a.m. He’d get to the bakery at 5 a.m. to buy bread with money his father, Samuel, spotted him. He and his siblings—nine others—would take the bread to the flea market to sell before walking to school. It built a work ethic.

“Daddy instilled in us a desire to survive, to be hustlers,” Mutombo says. “He made $37 a month (as a 37-year school teacher), so how was Daddy going to buy you new pants? If we wanted new pants or shoes, we had to sell [bread]. I understand poverty, but I also know how to share what God gives us. It’s a duty. I have not minded giving some of my millions away.”

For the seventh born—and tallest—son, the tallest order came after three brothers and his mother all died back home. One brother collapsed mid-game while playing for the country’s national handball team. Characteristically, Mutombo responded to the family crisis by adopting his brothers’ children.

Mutombo’s mother died in 1996. She was literally scared to death when rebels moved into Kinshasa and shooting erupted in the streets. Panicked, she asked for water, then her heart stopped beating. Because of the violence, Mutombo couldn’t fly home, though he sent money for the funeral with a brother who made the trip.

“It’s something I have to deal with until the day I die: I was not able to say bye,” he says. “Everyone was more concerned with my safety. I was the one holding the family together financially, morally. Daddy still talks about [the death toll]; he lost three of his boys. He says if they were alive today, whatever medical problems, I would have been the one to save them. But I tell him that neither one of us can control our destiny. All we can do is hope that the future is bright.”

Samuel, 78, lives with Mutombo. He is the root of his son’s support of education in many homeland schools and colleges. His mother was the loving disciplinarian. “She didn’t care how big you were or how tall, she’d find something and hit you with it,” he says.

Her No. 1 weapon: a cooking stick used to stir “fu-fu,” a thick, starchy dish made from the cassava plant, a vegetable like a potato or yam.

 


AFTER THE photo shoot, Mutombo says he isn’t sure what the future holds for him, though he “already has a lot to do.” Two weeks prior, he launched MIG (Mutombo International Groups) Business Enterprise. First up:
taking over airport concessions, then branching into oil investments and housing development. The week after, he was scheduled at a global initiatives conference organized by Bill Clinton.

Now that he’s built a hospital, everyone thinks Mutombo is an expert. He’s getting dozens of consulting calls. Soon, he says, he’ll have to start charging for his services. Then again, no. It simply inspires him—and he, in turn, inspires others. “They’re saying, ‘If I make it, I will do what Mr. Mutombo does,’” he says. “All I want is to be part of the solution to the world’s problems.”

For now, he wants to prove he can still play NBA-level hoops at his age. The secret to his longevity? “Self-discipline,” he says. “But everyone wants me to break down my every routine, minute-by-minute, like I’m a preacher.”

Plus, the Houston Rockets, an early favorite in the West, have a shot at the NBA title that’s eluded him. “That would be the best,” he says, stomping his size-22 right foot. “If it’s God’s will, it will be a nice going-away present.”

Right now, it’s a recent coming-home present that makes him smile. After taking a train from Washington, D.C., to 30th Street Station and ringing up a $45 cab ride to Villanova, the driver wouldn’t let Mutombo pay. “He wanted to thank me for the impact I’m making,” he says.

As Mutombo leaves the photo studio, heads out onto 2nd Street and gets into his wife’s Land Rover, every other passing car honks, waves and shouts his name.

“See, they haven’t forgotten me,” he says. “And they’re still watching.”

To learn more about the Dikembe Mutombo Foundaton, visit www.dmf.org.

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