Andrew Maykuth Online
The Philadelphia Inquirer
February 10, 2002
Mutombo the man

The Sixers' all-star center, known for rebounds, has given Congo a lot of assists.

Sunday Magazine cover story


The official book on Dikembe Mutombo is that he is practically a saint, an uncommonly generous man.

The 76ers center collects accolades for his good works the way other athletes amass trophies. His publicist plays up the image of a brilliant student from Congo, fluent in nine languages, who went to Georgetown University on an academic scholarship only to be discovered by legendary coach John Thompson. "As a premed major, his dream was to become a medical doctor and return to Congo to practice medicine."

Derailed by a dazzling basketball career that earns him more than $13 million a year and today will see him playing in his eighth NBA All-Star Game, Mutombo has sought to fulfill his quest to improve health care by building a hospital in his desperately poor native land to honor his late mother.

Mutombo spends an impressive amount of his recreational time raising money for the $14 million hospital. "He met with Kofi Annan in New York last month," boasted Susan M. Johnson, executive director of Mutombo's charitable foundation. "He got in to see Colin Powell on one day's notice. He met with Laura Bush in the White House. I'm always having him talk to people in Congress. He could care less about the notoriety and the publicity. He is so modest."

The actor Danny Glover, a fellow United Nations Development Program spokesman, said in an interview that Mutombo's devotion to public service inspires awe. "You know that when he goes to bed at night, he's thinking about these issues, he's caring about people."

Ask his relatives in Kinshasa about Mutombo, the boy who cut a wide swath across the capital's cracked concrete basketball courts. During a visit to Congo before the start of the season, Mutombo handed out $55,000 in cash in one night to family members who queued up to honor him. His uncle Philo Nzembele, who carries a photograph in his wallet of the Toyota 4Runner that Mutombo gave him, calls his nephew "Moses" for uplifting his entire clan. "Moses is the one who set his people free," he said.

The pressure on Mutombo for his time and money in Congo is so great that he can no longer stay at Kinshasa's best hotel because a crowd forms outside demanding handouts. "Everybody wants to see me," he said during a whirlwind trip to break ground on the hospital project. "They want a house. They want a car."

All this is part of the Story of Mutombo. But the truth is somewhat different. His high school classwork suffered because of his devotion to basketball - he had to take a special course for students who flunked the national graduation exam. His teachers remember his language skills as rudimentary. His contemporaries do not recall him ever talking about a desire to be a doctor. When he came to America in 1987, his aim was to play basketball - and Coach Thompson had seen videotapes of him before he landed in the United States.

And Mutombo is no saint. After a federal witness testified that he received sexual favors at a notorious Atlanta strip club, he deflected questions about his after-hours life as though he were blocking another shot. "Hey, I'm 35 years old and I'm building a hospital," he said.

What is true is that Dikembe Mutombo is a complicated man with a ravenous desire to please people. And that, happily for the NBA, coincides with its desire to sell a glowing image that will reflect well on the sport. The problem is that the myth and the image are impossible for anybody to maintain. Mutombo is neither brilliant nor saintly, but he is generous and dedicated, warm and conscientious. His need for approval is positive, though a Washington Post writer once called him a "whiny jerk" for demanding so much praise. Mutombo closely guards the private side of his personality, and any questioning that strays from the storybook script is not appreciated. His staff bristled at suggestions that the hospital project was disorganized in a way that plagues many well-intentioned efforts in Africa. During his trip to Congo, when Mutombo conked out at the end of an exhausting day, his protective entourage shooed away photographers from capturing his 7-foot-2 frame folded up on the sofa in a moment of weakness.

Kinshasa is a sprawling, steamy city along the enormous Congo River. After five years of war and disorder following decades of the thieving rule of dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, Kinshasa is a crumbling city of broken streets, mildewed buildings and convoluted shantytowns. Five million people are said to live here, though nobody has taken a census since the Democratic Republic of Congo became independent from Belgium in 1960.

Mutombo grew up in a Protestant household of eight children, the domain of Samuel Mutombo Sr., an educator who stressed learning. The Barumbu neighborhood is densely packed with low-rise concrete buildings, separated by dirt streets and open trench sewers. It is middle-class by Kinshasa standards. Mutombo's uncle, Philo Nzembele, now lives in the house, after Mutombo bought his parents a swank place in Kinshasa's finest neighborhood.

The rooms where Mutombo and his brothers slept are now rented to boarders, but the living room is a shrine to his greatness.

On one wall, Nzembele has pasted an Adidas promotional poster with Mutombo's full name - Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean Jacque Wamutombo: "Master of this House." On another wall, there are several framed shots of Nzembele and the Mutombo family meeting President Bill Clinton in the Oval Office, when Mutombo received the President's Service Award in 2000.

"Even the children of our children will see these photos," Nzembele said. "When we leave the world, they will still be talking about us."

Nzembele offers a brief tour of the Mutombo homestead. The toilet and the shower are outdoors - not many houses in Kinshasa come so well-equipped. "You can see he grew up in fine surroundings," said his uncle.

According to the legend, Mutombo preferred playing soccer as a youth, where his gigantic wingspan was useful in protecting the goal. His older brother Ilo, who is 6-foot-9, urged Mutombo to devote more time to basketball, though the sport does not have nearly the popularity in Congo that soccer does.

Mutombo played first for his high school, the Institute Kasai, now called John Babwibi College. The instructors there recall that Mutombo was reluctant to play at first, but his gym teacher suggested he would be a star.

"Soon he was playing so much that it began to affect his studies," said Pierre Babole, the math teacher.

The basketball court where Mutombo got his start is now overgrown with grass. The wooden backboards are falling apart. Mutombo visited the school two years ago, accompanied by a crew from CBS's 60 Minutes. The school's administrators were disappointed that he came on a Sunday, without notice. The only person who met him was the school's security guard.

They have read about Mutombo's generosity and hope he will not forget his old school. "Do you know, will he come here?" said Gideon Mabwidi, the son of the school founder. "Can you pass a message on to him?"

Mutombo did not finish his studies at the Institute Kasai. After he failed the national test, he enrolled in a remedial program at the Institute Boboto, a Jesuit school known as one of Kinshasa's finest. He was 20 years old.

The teachers at Boboto remember Mutombo as a likable student, respectful of authority. His French was rudimentary and needed work, but he was able to improve sufficiently to pass the tests the second time around.

Pierre Lecuit, a Belgian priest, said teachers still tell a Mutombo story. On his first day at Boboto, Mutombo sat in the rear of the room. The teacher, spotting the towering teenager, ordered him to sit down. When the bewildered Mutombo remained still, the teacher exploded: "If you don't obey me, then get out of my class." It was then that Mutombo stood up and the teacher realized he was a giant. "OK, sit down. You can stay."

The teachers at Institute Boboto tried to persuade Mutombo to play for their team - he attended the school for only a few months, though his records list it as the place where he received his diploma. But by that time, Mutombo was playing on a much higher level. He had moved beyond high school courts.

Brother Ilo introduced Mutombo to Basketball Club Onatra, sponsored by the state transport company. On his first day at practice, Mutombo was skipping rope beside the court when he tripped and gashed his chin on the concrete - the scar is still plainly visible for anyone shorter than Mutombo to see. Mutombo said he almost quit the game at that point.

At the club's headquarters, where players engage in a barefoot pickup game, the coaches who were Mutombo's teammates in the early '80s offer to show a visitor the exact spot where the big man shed blood.

"He was sort of shy when he first came here, and we thought he was fragile," said Emile Mozingo, a Onatra coach. "But he was determined to do more and he had a strong will. I'm not surprised he went so far."

Some of the coaches quickly retrieved faded photographs from those glory years to prove they once played alongside Mutombo. There was one picture when the national team went to Yugoslavia for a basketball camp in 1985. They remember Mutombo as a quick study - he is the only player who spent only one year with Onatra's junior-division team before getting promoted to its national squad.

"It gives us a lot of pleasure that someone from our entourage has done so well," said Fernand Kalakala. "He started as such a weak player. Now he gives us honor."

There is no jealousy over Mutombo's riches. "Actually he is such a hero that everyone wants to exalt him," said Egbondo Mombango, another coach. "Musicians invoke his name in songs because it makes everyone pay attention."

After arriving in the NBA, Mutombo provided the Onatra club with new equipment. Later, he paid for uniforms for the Congolese women's basketball team at the 1996 Olympics.

It has been a few years since Mutombo stopped by for a visit, the players say. "We would love to see him," said Mombango. "We need new equipment."

Ilo, who is six years older than Dikembe, said that the duo were well known because of their success on the court - Ilo went on to play at the Division II University of Southern Indiana and was briefly a pro in Europe.

"We were getting famous in Kinshasa," he said. "We're playing at the American school. Sometimes the Marines from the embassy got tired of playing themselves so we came in and whupped them."

The Mutombo brothers came to the attention of Herman Henning, a former Chicago high school coach working for the U.S. Information Agency in Kinshasa. He told Coach Thompson at Georgetown about Dikembe and helped arrange an academic scholarship for his freshman year. There was no doubt about which direction Mutombo was going - he was introduced to Thompson 20 minutes after he arrived in the States.

Mutombo joined the Georgetown team in his sophomore year and blossomed by his junior year. But he has said, "It never crossed my mind about becoming a pro until I was a junior in college."

He was the fourth player chosen in the NBA draft in 1991. The Denver Nuggets signed him to a five-year, $13.75 million contract.

At the time, Mutombo let it be known that there was more to life than creature comforts. "I'm not going to buy 10 or 11 cars and wear gold; I just wasn't raised that way," he said. "I've been reading the books they use to teach at Harvard Business School. I plan to put most of my money in the bank."

Thompson recognized a wealth of talent. "I like to sit back and listen to how people say how great some of these kids are now, because in a few years Dikembe's going to surpass them all," he said before the draft. "In terms of his playing career, he's on an upward curve."

Fast-forward 10 years. Mutombo's career has exceeded expectations, first with Denver and then with the Atlanta Hawks, who traded Mutombo to Philadelphia last year. The records and the awards have piled up. Mutombo now earns about as much in a year as he made during his first five years as a pro.

Despite his prodigious talent, Mutombo has found respect elusive. The Denver sportswriters used to say that Mutombo spoke nine languages, but English wasn't one of them. His voice is incredibly hoarse: Radio personality Howard Stern calls him the Cookie Monster because he sounds like the Sesame Street character.

He declared himself a role model, setting himself apart from the flamboyant athletes of the 1990s. But there were occasional scraps with teammates and opponents on the court. He jettisoned a fiancee the night before the wedding over a prenuptial agreement - he later married a Congolese woman, Rose, with whom he had two children and adopted four nieces and nephews.

He says he is underappreciated, though he is one of the top vote-getters in the NBA all-star voting this year. "Everywhere I've gone in the NBA I've left a nice legacy," he said. "When I went to Philly, people said bad things about me. They said I was too old, I only play defense, I didn't know how to shoot the basket."

He remembers each affront. The questions about his age provoke particular scorn. "Some people say I'm not 35 years old, I'm something like 40. I don't know why they say that. It hurts my feelings. It's like they're insulting my parents for not being smart enough to know when I was born."

But he has matured from the early years when he once told the NBA "go to hell" when he wasn't picked for the all-star game. He is now more concerned about his legacy than ever.

Five years ago, Mutombo created the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation to build a hospital in Kinshasa, where health-care facilities are threadbare at best. At first he was going to name it for himself, but he changed plans after his mother, Biamba Marie Mutombo, died of a stroke in 1998. Mutombo believes she might have survived if Congo's civil war had not prevented her from getting to the hospital.

Mutombo thought it would be easy to raise money for the hospital. He thought that NBA players would flock to help a worthy cause in Africa. But so far the only support he has received has been from former Georgetown chums Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning. Some corporate sponsors have pledged assistance, but Mutombo has put up most of the money himself - $3.5 million so far.

Some of his associates also suggest that perhaps a hospital was too ambitious - that Congo's health-care system is so neglected and primitive that money would be better spent improving primary health services. Kinshasa is littered with projects built by foreign donors whose patience and funds were exhausted. Indeed, squatters have taken over an unfinished cardiac hospital not far from Mutombo's homestead.

"A lot of people wouldn't start with a hospital," said James C. Setzer, an international health expert at Emory University in Atlanta who is advising the Mutombo foundation. Setzer hopes the hospital can become the focal point for expanding health services into the community - less glamorous than a 300-bed hospital, but far more crucial to Congo's long-term development.

"The hospital creates an opportunity," said Setzer, who accompanied Mutombo for the groundbreaking ceremony in September. Mutombo's advisers convinced him that he also needs to raise an additional $10 million endowment to operate the hospital in perpetuity.

"Dikembe understands that challenge," said Setzer. "He's the sort of guy who people want to help. He's so engaging."

In Congo, the man with the big heart is also known as the man with the big wallet. For Mutombo to navigate through a crowd is perhaps more difficult than going one-on-one with Shaquille O'Neal.

Journalists were not invited to join Mutombo the night he handed out the cash to his relatives - he recounted the experience the next day. "If you don't do it, you get in trouble with the family," he said.

Each handout is like a long-term investment. In a country where the official per capita income is $115 a year, Mutombo's gifts are significant. At a community feeding center, he handed a $20 bill to a poor woman whose plight struck him. "She'll be saying good things about me for the rest of her life," he said.

For his advisers, Mutombo's generosity is a delight, but the cash flow is also worrisome. It makes managing a big construction project like the hospital a challenge.

A few days before Mutombo turned the soil on the 10-acre construction site, he paid a visit to the International Polio Victims Response Committee. It's a program run by an American humanitarian aid worker, Jay Nash, designed to help the thousands of Congolese children still affected by polio.

It was after sunset, and children wearing crudely fashioned steel braces were waiting several hours for Mutombo, who frequently changed his schedule without notice or explanation. The delay hardly dampened their enthusiasm. The music and the refreshments flowed, and dozens of children on wobbly legs gyrated for the giant.

The visit lasted no more than 10 minutes. Mutombo smiled broadly, cradling children's heads in his massive hands. He was all warmth. Then he announced he was so moved by the center's work that he was going to donate $1,000 a month to its programs. Indefinitely.

"It seemed to me he thought of it on the spot," said Jay Nash. Mutombo's staff had no warning.

"This happens all the time," said Brian Ourand, an accountant Mutombo's agent had sent along to keep track of things. He rolled his eyes as he made one more calculation. "I keep telling him: Hey, buddy, it's a zero-sum game."

For Mutombo, the money was chump change. He is working on a bottomless reservoir of good will.

"A thousand dollars a month isn't much," he said. "Twelve thousand dollars a year is not hurting me. I think I can manage."

 

To make a donation: Dikembe Mutombo Foundation, Inc. 4413 Northside Parkway, Suite 137, Atlanta, Ga. 30327, 404-262-2109, e-mail to Info@dmf.org.


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