Helping people was a tradition in my family,” says Dikembe Mutombo, an NBA legend and philanthropist known for both his shot-blocking abilities and his heart of gold.
Mutombo was the seventh in a family of 10 children growing up in Kinshasa, the capital city of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He watched his father, a schoolteacher who earned $38 a month, and his mother, a housewife, struggle to support the family without sacrificing their own selflessness.
“I was born in a house where my mom and dad always left the door open,” he recalls. “In my household there was no stranger. My mom gave food to anybody. We slept in a room with different people who didn’t have a place to sleep. Those are the things I saw in my lifetime.”
As a result of this upbringing, Mutombo had no doubt that he, too, would grow up to help others.
He dreamed of becoming a doctor and excelled at math and science. In 1987 that dream was on the verge of coming true: Mutombo received a scholarship from the United States Agency for International Development and headed to Washington, D.C., where he enrolled at Georgetown University.
“I am a product of the U.S. government,” he muses. “I would not have done what I have if it was not for great support from the hands of the American people.”
Mutombo came to the United States to study medicine, but, in hindsight, it seems almost inevitable that he — standing 7-foot-2 on a sports-obsessed campus — would play basketball. He joined the Hoyas in his sophomore year and, as he puts it, “I ended up being good.”
“Good” doesn’t quite begin to describe his abilities, the result of a combination of natural skill, diligent training, and coaching by John Thompson, a man whom Mutombo still describes as a mentor and father figure.
“He taught me so much about life,” says Mutombo, “about the things that I can learn and accomplish, and how to be a great human being — to earn respect in the world.”
After graduating from Georgetown with dual degrees in linguistics and diplomacy, Mutombo was drafted into the NBA in 1991. While some of his better-known peers made tabloid headlines for their love lives, drug use, crime, and other unsavory behavior, Mutombo stayed above the fray. Over the course of 18 years, he played for six teams and earned a reputation as one of the best shot-blockers in league history. He won the Defensive Player of the Year Award four times and is an eight-time NBA All-Star. He even had a signature move, a threatening finger wag to anyone who tried to get by him on the court. The taunt belied his gentle-giant status.
“A man don’t fly in the house of Mutombo,” he recalls with a chuckle, demonstrating the wag by shaking his long index finger in front of his face. “It was something that came to me in my rookie or second year of the NBA. I was getting so much challenge from people who felt that they could climb over ‘Mutombo the Mountain.’
“I told them, ‘Listen, you can’t just walk in my house without permission. You have to knock. And if you think you can just get an easy lay-up, I will swipe it.’ I blocked so many people for so many years. I’m glad to see myself today as one of the greatest defenders that ever played this game in basketball history.”
Simultaneously, Mutombo made a name for himself as a philanthropist and humanitarian. He visited Somali refugee camps in Kenya in the ’90s, helped pay for the Congo women’s basketball and track teams to go to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and started the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation to improve the healthcare, education, and quality of life in the Congo.
Knowing he’d never become a doctor as he once dreamed, Mutombo found another way to give back. In 2007, he opened the $30 million, 150-bed Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital, named in honor of his late mother, in the outskirts of Kinshasa. He is currently raising money to open a school in the Congo, sometime in the next two years.
“I always wanted to live my life in treating people,” he says. “I decided to do it in a different way.”
In addition to his global humanitarian work, Mutombo devotes time to volunteering close to home. One of his pet projects is working with impoverished inner-city children in Atlanta, where he lives with his wife, three children, and adopted nieces and nephews. He visits schools, such as Dunbar Elementary in Atlanta, where he recently helped students fulfill a shoebox school-supply service project for students in Africa, in hopes of showing the children that through hard work, they can achieve better lives than they have been given.
“I tell the kids, I grew up very poor,” Mutombo says. “I try to give them the great lesson of love that I have had in my life. Love is not about where you come from; it’s about where you want to be tomorrow.”
Maggie Fazeli Fard is Experience Life’s staff writer.