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