Earlier this month, Dikembe Mutombo was inducted into the National Basketball Association’s (NBA’s) Basketball Hall of Fame. In his speech at the induction ceremony he indicated that he never imagined that his life would include this honor. Mutombo’s path to the Basketball Hall of Fame was rather indirect. Here is his inspiring story:
Mr. Dikembe Mutombo was born in Kinshasa in 1966 in what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He grew up in a comfortable home with his parents and siblings in a city with high crime and poverty rates.
In high school, Mutombo was an excellent soccer goalie and practiced martial arts. Due to his great height, which as a youth was already nearly 7’ or 2.13m, Mutombo’s father Samuel encouraged him to play basketball. Mutombo’s initial efforts were awkward; he cracked his chin on the cement court during his first practice and was ready to abandon the sport, but his father insisted that Mutombo not give up. Soon Mutombo was playing for the national basketball team.
One day, while reading newspapers posted in the window of the US Embassy, Mutombo came to the attention of Herman Henning, an embassy employee who was a former coach. The encounter led to Henning introducing Mutombo to John Thompson, the basketball coach at Georgetown University.
In 1987 Mutombo moved to Washington, DC. Although his English was limited, Mutombo, like most Africans, was fluent in several languages and his English rapidly improved. In his second year at Georgetown, he began to play for university’s excellent basketball team. Although initially on a pre-med track, after joining the team Mutombo switched to Linguistics and Diplomacy and graduated in 1991 with dual degrees.
As a very talented athlete, Mutombo was quickly picked up by the National Basketball Association (NBA). He played for the Denver Nuggets (1991-1996), Atlanta Hawks (1996-2001), Philadelphia 76ers (2001-2002), the New Jersey Nets (2002-2003), New York Knicks (2003-2004) and Houston Rockets (2004-2009). He retired as one of the best shot-blockers in NBA history.
More than just a Great Basketball Player
From his first moments with the NBA Mutombo gave back to those less fortunate. He became a spokesman for the international relief agency CARE, visited Somali refugee camps in northern Kenya in 1993, and paid for the DRC’s (then Zaire’s) track team’s uniforms and the women’s basketball team’s travel expenses to the 1996 summer Olympics in Atlanta in the USA. He also provided basketball clinics for the Special Olympics and worked with troubled youths in Atlanta through Strong STARTS.
In 1997 Mutombo moved to Atlanta and established the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation. Through his charitable foundation Mutombo began fundraising to create a state-of-the-art hospital in Kinshasa in honor of his mother Biamba Marie Mutombo, who passed away in 1998.
In 1999, Mutombo participated in a two week Polio Eradication Campaign in the DRC that vaccinated over 8.2 million children under the age of five. In 2003 he served in the NBA’s Basketball without Borders Africa initiative, which offers on-court instruction, community outreach and educational seminars on HIV/AIDS prevention and other social issues. Mutombo used a return visit to South Africa with the same program in 2004 to dedicate dormitories refurbished by his Foundation at the Ithuteng Trust, a school for underprivileged youths in Soweto.
By August 2006 Mutombo had donated $15 million for the completion of the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital. When the 300-bed hospital opened in 2007, it was the first modern medical facility built in the area in nearly 40 years. The $29 million, 12-acre (49,000 m2) complex is located on the outskirts of Mutombo’s hometown of Kinshasa in an area known as Masina that is home to approximately one quarter of the city’s 7.5 million residents.
Mutombo received one of 20 President’s Service Award’s in 1999. He has been recognized by Sporting News as one of the “Good Guys in Sports” in 1999 and 2000 and by the NBA with a J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award in 2001 and 2009. Dikembe Mutombo is the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s first Youth Emissary and in 2009 he was appointed as the NBA’s first Global Ambassador. Mutombo has been honored by USA Weekend Magazine with the “Most Caring Athlete Award” and FOXSports.com named him the most generous athlete in the world.
Congratulations Mr. Dikembe Mutombo on your latest honor. You are a role model and an inspiration.
Heidi G. Frontani is a Professor of Geography at Elon University in the USA. She has taught classroom-based and study travel courses in the USA, UK, China, Ghana, and Kenya, where she was a Fulbright Scholar. She has numerous peer-reviewed articles on development and the social aspects of natural resource management near wildlife parks. Her most recent research interests include sustainable health sector aid to Africa, aid assessment, and Africans’ effective development initiatives in Africa. She writes weekly on Africans’ successful development initiatives in Africa on her blog.