Nuggets offer homecoming for Dikembe Mutombo
Former Denver center helps tip off opening night festivities
Masai Ujiri will never forget the moment.
Standing in Nelson Mandela’s house, there was an aura about the South African president as he walked into the room.
The first words out of Mandela’s mouth were hardly what Ujiri expected.
At 7-foor-2, Mount Mutombo always stood talk on the basketball court. It was no different while standing in the presence of one of the greatest leaders in world history.
“He was going to see us for 15 minutes because he’s not strong enough to stand and talk,” Mutombo said, recalling the 2005 visit in Johannesburg. “He ended up giving us 35 minutes. He talked to us and took pictures with us.
“As soon as we walked in, he said, ‘Heeeey, Dikembe!” Everybody was like: “Mandela remembered you.’ The players in the league and the coaches couldn’t believe that I have this bonding with someone that the world knows so well.”
Ujiri remembers the message from Mandela as much as the greeting he gave Mutombo.
“Mandela walked straight up to Mutombo and said, 'What a great thing you are doing for the people in Africa,' ” Ujiri said. “That just gave me goosebumps – a great man who has done so much for Africa recognizing another great young man who is doing the same thing.”
Never forgetting his upbringing in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), Mutombo has donated more time, energy and money to helping improve the living conditions in Africa than any other NBA player, past or present. He is a member of the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame in Boise, Idaho, and believes his work has only just begun.
Mutombo has spent $23 million building and maintaining a hospital and research center in the impoverished DRC capital of Kinshasa, and he has worked closely with Nuggets executive vice president of basketball operations Ujiri in the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders program for the past eight years.
“He’s something special, a real ambassador for Africa and everything we try to stand for over there,” said the Nigerian-born Ujiri. “He’s a dear friend and a great colleague.”
That longtime friendship led to a homecoming for Mutombo as the Nuggets opened the 2010-11 season Wednesday night against the Utah Jazz.
Mutombo, drafted by the Nuggets in 1991, spent the day talking to Nuggets players and staff members and presented the game ball during the pregame ceremonies
“It’s great having him here,” Ujiri said. “What a legend. He means so much to the city for what he did here and what he continues to do it all over the world.”
Mutombo spent five seasons in Denver, and the image of him cradling the ball in the middle of the free throw lane after the Nuggets upset top-seeded Seattle in the first round of the 1994 playoffs remains one of the greatest moments in franchise history.
“I have that memory of him holding that ball when they beat the Sonics,” Ujiri said. “I think that was the beginning of Mutombo and his legacy.”
Because of what he meant to the franchise and the Denver community, Mutombo’s departure was painful for Nuggets fans when he signed with the Atlanta Hawks as a free agent in 1996. He went on to play 13 more seasons with five other teams before retiring in 2009.
Mutombo now works as a global ambassador for the NBA as a special assistant to Commissioner David Stern. He travels all over the world, but his primary focus remains impoverished areas of Africa.
Through the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation, he is seeking support to help offset the tremendous cost of maintaining the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital in Kinshasa.
“Building the facility of more than $30 million, I cannot do it by myself and continue to support it,” Mutombo said. “I’m seeking help from the American public and my fans and those that love the game to support us.”
Mutombo’s goal is to get $20 annual contributions from 100,000 people, which would raise $2 million. He estimates his costs at about $1.3 million per year.
“I’ve been in this fight for so long,” he said. “Now, I want everybody to join me in this partnership and this mission that can save lives.”
Closer to home, Mutombo’s influence in the NBA remains unquestioned. Nuggets players and members of the coaching staff shared stories and quips after the morning shootaround.
“You look like you’re still in great shape,” Denver point guard Chauncey Billups said. “We need a big man. You all right?”
Mutombo’s deep baritone laugh filled the air. Even Ujiri wouldn’t be able to coax him out of retirement, but he is happy for his good friend, who joined the Nuggets front office at the end of August.
“I'm very proud of him. I think Masai made a right decision to come here and take over the Denver Nuggets operation,” Mutombo said. “I have a strong bonding with this organization, because this was the organization that gave me the opportunity to play in the NBA.
So many good times here, my first five years. I'll always (remind) myself of all those great moments that we had here in Denver. When I saw Masai was getting a call to go to Denver, I said, 'Don't hold back. Go for it.' ”
In basketball and in life, Mutombo and Ujiri wouldn’t do it any other way.
Aaron J. Lopez is the primary writer for Nuggets.com, providing behind-the-scenes content, including feature stories and video for the site. Before joining the Nuggets in 2009, he spent 15 years covering Colorado sports for the Rocky Mountain News and the Associated Press, making him one of the longest-tenured sports writers in Denver. Read Aaron's full bio...
Contact Aaron at firstname.lastname@example.org