A Chat with Congo Cash

Didier Ilunga-Mbenga (that’s “D.J. Mbenga” to you) is quite an interesting fellow.

The Lakers’ 7-foot backup center grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo (then known as Zaire) before moving to Belgium and ultimately across the Atlantic to play in the NBA, is a black belt in judo, speaks seven languages, has a foundation focusing on education in Congo, teaches Congolese dances to Kobe Bryant and Derek Fisher and is constantly looking to stay ahead of world fashion.

In other words, on a team full of colorful personalities, Mbenga is rainbow.

In a 20-odd minute conversation with D.J., we covered those topics and more. Enjoy:

MT: Everybody on the team and an increasing amount of fans call you “Congo Cash.” How did it start?
Mbenga: The origin comes from practice. Every time someone passes it to me, like Kobe, I always make the shot. I always shoot and score.

MT: Always? Every time?
Mbenga: I always make shots. One time, B-Shaw (assistant coach Brian Shaw) just called me over and said, “Show me some of that Congo (stuff).” And then Kobe’s like, “Congo Cash, cash money! That’s cash baby!” Now everybody calls me that. Everybody. If I get the ball in a game or in practice, they all scream ‘Congo Cash!’

MT: I can back that up. It’s true. In fact, before a game last week in Memphis, I remember you and Shaw beat (Adam) Morrison and (Jordan) Farmar in a pregame 3-point shooting drill, and Shaw must have said Congo Cash 1,000 times.
Mbenga: (Smiling) That’s what I do, man. That’s what I do. If you leave me open, I’ll knock it down.

MT: The team likes to talk a lot about your shooting, obviously, but you’re still all about playing defense, right?
Mbenga: Play defense, block shots, rebound, take charges, run. That’s what I like to do.

MT: You heard all about Kobe Bryant before you even came to the United States; you have a fun back-and-forth banter with him, but I wonder if you ever stop and think about playing with one of the best players of all time?
Mbenga: I always say, when we talk about Michael Jordan we always set him apart. But people gotta realize now, it’s not just Michael Jordan. It’s Kobe too. I told him, “I’m going to give you the best gift you’ve ever had … I’m building a basketball court in Congo with your name on it. People they love you there. You helped me to get a ring, I’m going to give you something back. I’m going to give you a basketball court with your name – that’s something nobody else can have. Even Michael Jordan never had that.

MT: That’s pretty awesome.
Mbenga: I told him, “You’re going to give people hope. There are kids that are stealing, killing, (doing drugs) … instead I want them to play basketball at the Kobe … Bryant … Court.” It’s going to be in Kinshasa*. They are going to start working on it in a couple of weeks. Everything’s already been set up through my foundation.
*Kinshasa is the capital and largest city in Congo.
Editor’s Note 1: Mbenga does not want his name associated with the project publicly in Congo due to political reasons with his family dating back to his childhood. But his goal remains to fill Kinshasa with playgrounds and schools for kids to play at and learn, regardless of if his name is front and center. Not bad, huh?

Kobe Speaks of DJ’s Special Gift

MT: I know that you’re a black belt in judo. Tell me about it.
Mbenga: I’m not using it right now, but sometimes I’ll use it while playing to knock people down. I’ve been practicing a long, long time. When I got my black belt, it was 2001. I was 18 years old and I was in Belgium.

MT: So this was in a dojo in Belgium, but you started with the judo in Congo, right?
Mbenga: Yes, I started when I was 13 years old. And judo takes time. It depends what kind of sensei you have, how far you get.

MT: How do you incorporate it into basketball?
Mbenga: Well, that’s why I look like this (Editor’s Note 2: Mbenga simply pointed to his absurdly sculpted frame). I’m not really a weight-lifting guy. That might not be good for me. Judo has always helped me with that.

MT: I know boxing is really big in Ghana, is judo just as big in Congo? And also, could you beat up everyone in the NBA?
Mbenga: Yes it is big. I don’t know if I could (take) everybody, but I know how to fight. That’s different. Maybe somebody is strong, but I’m strong too. (My teammates) could tell you that. I learned how to fight. You have to in judo. We were always fighting in our training. Anytime you get a belt, you have to fight someone. It’s not like karate or something like that when you do demonstrations. You have to fight someone next to you to get to the next level, someone on top of you.

congoMT: So you know that if you were a D.J. in a club, you wouldn’t have to change your initials? You could just be: DJ Mbenga.
Mbenga: They call me D.J.; I’ll take it.

MT: No, no, I’m saying if you were a DJ, spinning records, you wouldn’t have to change your name.
Mbenga: Some people think I’m a D.J., too. I don’t get it.

MT: (laughs). OK. So what type of music would you play?
Mbenga: Congolese music. I can’t really explain it. It’s very different. African music. Kobe loves it. Kobe loves it, Fisher loves it. Every time I play it they’re trying to dance to it, trying to get into it. Ask Kobe, he’ll tell you!* He even asked me for a CD.

*Editor’s Note 3. True story: after the interview, Mbenga brought me over to Kobe, who was finishing up a magazine interview. When he finished, Mbenga said, “Kobe, tell him you love Congolese music,” and Bryant responded, “Oh, yeah, sure. The dancing is incredible.” Mbenga smiled like a proud father whose kid won Olympic gold, vindicated.

MT: You’ve told me before that fufu is the best African dish. Can you describe what exactly it is?
Mbenga: Oh, fufu, that’s the best. That’s the best. Fufu is for the men. Everybody eats fufu in Africa, but it’s for men. When you eat fufu, your day is set up.

MT: Wait, so men eat it more than women?
Mbenga: I mean, everyone eats it, but men love it. It’s like mashed potatoes a little, but not really. Mashed potatoes are too soft. Fufu is more filling, stronger. And you have to eat it with your hands for you to feel it, feel the texture.

MT: What’s your favorite language to speak out of the seven in which you’re fluent?
Mbenga: I love to speak Lingala because it’s the most fun. When I was growing up, we weren’t allowed to speak it in the house because my mom didn’t like it.

MT: Why didn’t she like it?
Mbenga: It’s more disrespectful. Lingala used to be spoken by the army; it was like a code. But then everyone started speaking it in Congo. So parents would want their kids to speak properly, and Lingala was not proper. My parents spoke French and Tshiluba (Editor’s Note 4: Tshiluba is a national language of the Democratic Republic of Congo with Bantu origins).

MT: With whom do you get to speak Lingala? Your countryman Dikembe Mutombo?
Mbenga: Yes, Dikembe. Also my little brother, my older brother, and others. When I played against Dikembe, we would speak Lingala, but we would also speak in Tshiluba because we’re from the same city (Kinshasa).

MT: Who is your best friend on the team?
Mbenga: My best guy used to be Trevor (Ariza). He used to sit close to me, we used to have fun. But now that he’s not here, I like everyone the same. I’m cool with everybody. I sit close to Ron (Artest) and Josh (Powell), and I have jokes with everyone.

MT: The most fun? Wait let me guess … Lamar (Odom).
Mbenga: Yeah. Lamar. Lamar sometimes is kind of like a little baby, but in a grown up’s body. Some days he’ll make you laugh and you don’t even know why. Afterwards you may think, “Wait, why am I laughing?” He’s just funny.

MT: Like a baby? Oh. OK. Moving on, who’s harder to guard in practice, Pau (Gasol) or Andrew (Bynum)?
Mbenga: Pau. Andrew is like me, it’s a bang, like a cannon. But Pau, he has more skills. You stop one side, he goes to the other side. You stop that side, he goes to the other. That’s hard for people to guard. I’m pretty good defensively, but Pau is a different story.

MT: So with Andrew, the key is just to keep him as far away from the basket as possible, right?
Mbenga: Yes, it’s simple. Don’t let him come in the lane. Keep him off the block, keep him away from the paint. Stay in his way and he will force something. If he scores, he scores, if he doesn’t, you win. But Pau is kind of hard.

MT: Do you ever cut people off while driving, just to impede their movement as you like to do with opponents shots in basketball?
Mbenga: In Belgium, I used to do that. Back here, I’m an NBA player so I got to watch what I do. But back then I had no patience. I’m the type of guy who likes perfection, and I don’t have patience for some things. I’m the kind of guy where if I can’t take it any more, I’ll just tell you. You can be the head coach, whatever. I’m not scared. But I’m going to respect you, because if I respect you, I can tell you when you do something bad.

MT: Moving on…

MT: Anyone who sees you walk in and out of arenas for games knows that you like to showcase your own personal fashion sense.
Mbenga: I’ll tell you this: I like to dress good. I love to be fashionable, and I like to dress with the times. If it’s cold, I’m going to dress for that. If it’s hot, same. Growing up in Europe (had an influence), and Congolese are known to be clean.

MT: “Clean” in this case meaning, “sharp,” or “neat,” right?
Mbenga: Right. If you ask any Africans, they’re tell you that Congolese are clean. You see, they don’t really make clothes in Congo, but we like to go to Europe, buy clothes and bring them back. We like to be clean.

MT: Who’s the cleanest Laker?
Mbenga: On the team, Kobe is clean. Fisher is clean. Lamar is clean sometimes. Who else? All the guys are trying to do their best, but they don’t all know. That’s not their fault. They’re clean but in their own way, they just don’t know how to be with the times. One day they will understand and will be more clean.

MT: So, Sasha (Vujacic) has his own sort of Eastern European style … is that clean?
Mbenga: Yeah he’s clean. But he just has his own way.

MT: He’s not up to your level though?
Mbenga: No, no, my skill level is high. It’s high. I know. I have contact with people that are telling me before things come out. People in Europe that have clothing lines (and such). But I won’t say guys are better or worse than other guys, just different. Some wear Gucci, nice stuff, but they don’t know. You can wear this (Editor’s Note 5: Mbenga grabs the Netherlands soccer warm up jacket I’m wearing at practice) and it looks good on you because you know how to match it, how to walk with it, how to coordinate with the rest of what you have on. So it’s part of your persona. But some guys will wear things that just look bad, and that’s not having a persona. Know what I’m saying?

MT: You know I do.

MT: I think you’d be an ideal cast member for the MTV’s “Real World.” You could regulate or stop all in house fights, use your sensitive side to calm the girls down when they got catty and emotional, make sure no one messed with the group when everyone goes out and offer perhaps the best confessionals in RW history.
Mbenga: I’ll tell you something. I have a contract sitting in my house, any time I want to sign it, to do a reality show with a major TV network. An African coming over here, having success, winning a championship and how an African copes with the culture here. But I can’t do a reality show. That’s not my persona. I’m a leader. I’m not a leader on the (Lakers), but I’m a leader where I come from. People are looking at me. People hear what I say, they know what I do. I can’t do some stuff that’s stupid like that. That’s all we have over there. We have messed up everything (in Congo). We’ve messed up politically, we’ve messed up our education, our economy … so I can’t come with something like that. People are looking to me for inspiration and so I will live up to that.

MT: I’m really glad you brought that up, because we’ve been spending a lot of time talking about superfluous, random or funny things, but I know about how many serious things you have going on. First, you have your own foundation and are involved with some awesome charity work in the Congo, particularly related to education. Second, you don’t really watch anything for entertainment on TV, focusing instead largely on news programs. And so on, like you just mentioned.
Mbenga: Somebody was asking me why I have a publicist. Actually he was trying to make fun of me. But he didn’t realize, yeah we all play basketball, but he doesn’t know what I do outside of basketball, doesn’t know where I come from, my background, what kind of family I have. I might be here to play basketball, but if I decide tomorrow not to play, I will have a great life.

MT: And your publicist really doesn’t do anything with basketball, it’s more about your other interests?
Mbenga: No, not for basketball, I don’t need that. I need (my publicist) to do some things that make sense for me. Basketball is my job, and that’s what I love to do. But on the side of basketball, it’s completely different. Charitable work, education in Congo, my home business I have, family stuff. Just a whole lot.

MT: Got it, D.J. Thanks for the time.

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