Here are four things to know about NBA Global Ambassador Dikembe Mutombo: He loves his family. He loves basketball. He loves Africa. He loves Atlanta.
So when given the chance to take part in an event that combined two of his deepest passions – namely, the first-ever NBA game in Africa – it was a foregone conclusion that Mutombo would participate. He attended the August 2015 exhibition game and sat courtside with NBA Commissioner Adam Silver and NBA Africa Ambassador Hakeem Olajuwon.
Fans at the NBA Africa game got an unexpected bonus in the second quarter. Mutombo and Olajuwon, the league’s two all-time leading shot blockers, took off their business suits and checked into the game to compete against players more than 10 years younger. Mutombo had been waiting for the moment for decades.
“It was my goal,” Mutombo said. “But I really didn’t know how much I was going to play. I talked to the league about maybe playing two minutes or three minutes. Then they asked me, ‘Do you want to play longer than that? Because it’s your game. You have been asking for this game for 20 years. We’ll give it to you.’”
Mutombo grabbed 3 rebounds in his 4 minutes of action. Olajuwon thrilled the crowd by scoring on his patented Dream Shake move, something that never would have happened unless Mutombo coerced the NBA’s first African-born player into joining him in the game.
“Dream was like, ‘I’m not going,’” Mutombo said with a laugh. “I was forced to go make Hakeem Olajuwon want to play. I told him myself, ‘Just go out even for 30 seconds and leave.’ And I’m glad that he did.”
Mutombo reflected on the event and savored the fulfillment of a lifelong goal.
“Oh, it was a dream come true. It was a dream come true,” he said, repeating his words as if to savor them. “I don’t know if there will ever be a moment like that on the continent where we walk on a basketball court together. I think we fulfilled our promise that we made to the next generation that they would get a chance to see us play on African soil.”
Mutombo’s journey to the NBA began in the winter of 1984 in his hometown of Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo. At the same time that Olajuwon, Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley were adjusting to life as NBA rookies, Mutombo was picking up a basketball for the first time.
Dikembe’s brother, Ilo, dragged him to the court to give the sport a try. Ilo’s appetite for basketball eventually propelled him to a collegiate career at Southern Indiana University. Dikembe himself had no such interest at the time, but Ilo wanted to convince his brother that his height and long reach – traits that helped Dikembe as a soccer goalie – would also help him dominate on a basketball court.
Mutombo struggled in his first attempts at basketball.
“It was not good,” Mutombo said. “I was like 17 and a half (years old). I fell down so bad and I cut my chin, and I had to get 18 stitches. I still have that scar. You can see it on my face. When you look at me near my chin, you can see I have a big cut. My brother and I always talk about it.”
Still, he stuck with the sport, eventually earning a spot on the national team and attracting the attention of legendary college coach John Thompson. Fewer than three years after trying the sport for the first time, Mutombo traveled halfway across the world to enroll at Georgetown University. At the time, he spoke five languages and several more African dialects, but English was not one of them. Nonetheless, he learned it as quickly as a freshman before starting his American basketball career as a sophomore.
Mutombo initially attended Georgetown with the goal of becoming a physician and returning to Congo to treat patients back home. He changed tracks in college and graduated instead with dual degrees in linguistics and diplomacy.
“That was my goal, a long time from today,” he said of his original medical ambitions. “I still love science though. I’m very fascinated by medicine and the progress of medicine. It is the reason why I’m on the board of Centers for Disease Control Foundation, I was on the board of the National Institute of Health, I’m on the board of UNICEF, and I sit on the board of many medical and humanitarian causes, because I want to ensure that our young people in Africa – and women in particular – have good access to health care.”
Even if Mutombo has been a lifelong ambassador off the court, his NBA career was predicated on being a most inhospitable host on it. Drafted by the Denver Nuggets in 1991, the 7’2” center quickly established himself statistically as a premier shot blocker, and he was chosen to play in the All-Star Game as a rookie.
By his second season, however, Mutombo wanted to convince his opponents not to bother shooting in the painted area at all. To fully impart his sentiment, he created the finger wag gesture that became his signature.
“Guys were not getting the message that they should not keep bringing it up,” he said. “I used to shake my head all the time, and I think that the message was not getting to them. I thought to myself, ‘Maybe waving my finger would help let get the message.’ And then I started doing it and it became a trademark. I loved to do it.”
Mutombo, an eight-time All-Star, excelled on both ends of the court, but his defense always shined a little more brightly. He led the NBA in total blocks for five consecutive seasons (1993-94 to 1997-98). Perhaps more impressively, he won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year Award four times.
Mutombo came to Atlanta as a free agent in 1996. The Hawks turned into an Eastern Conference power with Mutombo playing alongside Mookie Blaylock, Steve Smith, Christian Laettner and Alan Henderson. Even though Mutombo would eventually move on from the Hawks to play in four other cities, Mutombo’s heart and offseason home always remained in Atlanta.
Mutombo fondly recalled the team’s temporary relocation while Philips Arena was being built.
“We transformed the city of Atlanta,” he said. “We were winning. We averaged over 30,000 people a game at the Georgia Dome. You know, it was one of the amazing moments for me: playing in front of 62,000 people at the Georgia Dome for a game in Atlanta. You cannot take that away from me. You cannot.”
In 1997, in his second season as a Hawk, Mutombo created the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation and based it in Atlanta. The organization was founded with the mission of improving the health, education and quality of life for residents of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Eight years after its founding, the group helped open the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital in Kinshasa. Mutombo named the 300-bed facility after his mother, who set the example that he followed as he dedicated his post-playing career to humanitarian causes.
“My mom and dad had a lot of things to do with me being who I am today,” Mutombo said. They told me, ‘Don’t see the world through yourself, but see the world the way God made it. Think about God’s children and the suffering of those who don’t have any food. If you can feed them, feed them. If they don’t have any clothes, put clothes on them.”
Mutombo said that his parents didn’t just tell him how to help others; they showed him too.
“Nobody did that, but my mom and dad did despite how little they did have,” he said. “They did it through their family, and I just took that to the next level.”
Mutombo’s works of charity helped earn him the NBA’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship award in 2001 and 2009. He remains to this day the only person to win the award twice.
Even as he aged into his 40s, Mutombo remained a productive player. When he retired in 2009, he had amassed the second-highest block total in NBA history: 3289 blocks. In April 2015, the Basketball Hall of Fame announced his selection for entry as a player, and shortly after, the Hawks declared that Mutombo’s #55 would be the fourth retired number in team history.
Even though Mutombo appreciates the continuums of both basketball history and the cycle of works of goodwill, he also revels in the special exception of having a number reserved in his honor.
“Once your jersey goes up,” he said, “nobody can take it afterward.”
And if someone does try to take it, they will most certainly get a finger wag as Mutombo chides, “No, no, no.”
Story by KL ChouinardTwitter: @KLChouinard