Like Madonna, Beyonce, Cher, or Bono, Dikembe Mutombo is a one name phenomenon. And once you meet the legendary basketball star cum philanthropist, “Mutomobo,” as he refers to himself in the third-person, is not easy to forget.
You’re drawn to him less by his astonishing height, 7’2”, his raspy basso profundo, and his dazzling smile than by his dignity, along with his devotion to his struggling country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
“I’m so glad I didn’t become a doctor," Mutombo says. “Because I do more than any doctor can do.”
To support his homeland, where approximately 5 million people have died in a series of regional and ethnic conflicts over the past 14 years, Mutombo is co-hosting a soccer tournament for teen boys timed to coincide with the beginning of the World Cup. This weekend, approximately 480 underprivileged kids—top-notch soccer players selected from 24 neighborhoods across Kinshasa—will take part in the event.
The goal is to use the kids’ love of soccer as an opening to instruct participants in HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention. Though Congo suffers from a mass rape epidemic, the country has managed to maintain one of Africa’s lowest HIV-infection rates, with less than 2 percent of the population affected. Yet with over 4 percent of pregnant women HIV-positive and over 50 percent of Congo’s population under age 18, there is concern AIDS could become a bigger problem in the coming years.
“I cannot forget the place that I come from. The Congo is much in need,” Mutombo says, pressing his hand over his heart. He, his wife Rose, and some of their six children will be at the tournament, acting as instructors and cheerleaders.
At a recent anti-poverty conference in Washington, D.C. at which he spoke, Mutombo was surrounded by a gallery of admiring fans. He reveled in the attention, waving his long arms and gesticulating wildly until finally collared by several aides and led off into a corner to speak with The Daily Beast. But Mutombo is a magnet, and people continued to stop by as he flopped into a folding chair. His size 22 feet splayed out in front of him, he resembles an oversize version of the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz.
Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean Jacque Wamutombo, 42, is the seventh of 10 children. His father, Samuel, was the superintendent of schools in Kinshasa, Congo’s capital city, and his mother, Biamba Marie, was a homemaker.
“My mother taught us to sell food in the market so we could pay for school. I would get up at 4:30 a.m. and start selling bread and cheese before going to class,” Mutombo remembers. “School cost $65. The average salary was $125 a year, and with 10 kids, how are you going to pay for that?”
Mutombo was the goalie on his high school soccer team and dreamed of becoming a doctor. It was not until after he won a pre-med academic scholarship to Georgetown University in 1987 that he developed a serious interest in basketball.
Coming to America was both boot camp and culture shock. He spoke little English, and was drilled in the subject six hours a day for two years. During his sophomore year, Coach John Thompson invited Mutombo to try out for the basketball team, and because of the time commitment involved, he was forced to give up medicine.
For Mutomobo, playing basketball in front of 30,000 people was a shock, and he often had stage fright. “I went from playing three to five minutes to playing 35 minutes a game. One game changed my entire life—the game against St. John’s in 1989. I found my confidence in being a defense dominator. I broke the conference record.”
He also developed his trademark index finger wave, a half-menacing, half-goofy gesture that highlighted his preternatural ability to block shots. “It was to protect my house. No one can come into the house of Mutombo,” he explains, wagging his long finger and letting loose an uproariously deep-throated cackle.
Mutombo was drafted by the Denver Nuggets after graduating from Georgetown with a dual degree in linguistics and diplomacy. (His mother tongue is French, but he speaks nine languages, including five African dialects.) He went on to become one of the top defensive players in NBA history, before retiring in May 2009.
Mutombo considers his athletic mega-stardom a blessing from God. “I've no control over that. The Almighty has plans for us to make a place so we can go on and make a difference. It all has to do with my faith; I am deeply religious. It goes back to my roots, to my mom and my dad.”
Though some estimates now place his wealth at well over $100 million, Mutombo long ago decided not to spend his money on gold or cars. He has read through Harvard Business School syllabi and instead chose to put his savings in the bank and get engaged with philanthropy.
He launched the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation in 1997, one of the largest in Africa. The focal point has been the construction and opening of the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital and Research Center, a $29 million, 300-bed hospital in Kinshasa named after his late mother, which held its formal dedication ceremony in 2007. It was the first comprehensive medical facility of its kind to open in Congo in almost four decades, and Mutombo provided $22 million for construction out of his own pocket.
“My mom died [of a stroke in 1997] because she couldn’t get to the hospital,” Mutombo says. “No women deserve to die that way. There had to be a way they could be treated and saved. I have traveled thousands and thousands of miles to find the funds to keep my hospital open.”
The hospital has cared for 55,000 women and children since opening its doors. Ben Affleck was so impressed after a pit stop there two years ago that he started his own advocacy group, the Eastern Congo Initiative, to help local residents establish sustainable communities in the volatile region.
Having honored his mother, Mutombo now plans a tribute his father, who is still alive. A school, he says, is the natural choice, considering his father’s profession. He has already picked out the site.
“Giving back is a family tradition,” says Mireille "Mimi" Kanda, who is married to a cousin of Mutombo’s. “Mutombo is a very compassionate and outgoing person. There is no aloofness in him. He’s without pretension and happy to share.”
She describes him as a raconteur and voracious reader of history and current affairs. “He always knows exactly what is going on,” Kanda says, adding that he is the only person she knows who can stretch out his arms, reach over, and wash both sides of a car.
Mutombo is known for handing out spur-of-the-moment cash whenever he is in Kinshasa. During his visit there for the soccer tournament, he will be searching for future projects. “Drinking water is still a big issue, education is coming along, but we are not done yet, we can do more,” he says.
One of his aides signals the end of the interview; Mutombo has a plane to catch back to his home in Atlanta. He lopes off, waving and flashing that engaging grin, insisting he has no regrets about abandoning medicine for sports so many years ago.
“I’m so glad I didn’t become a doctor," he says, “because I do more than any doctor can do. I am an administrator, a CEO, doctor, psychiatrist, an activist, a campaign funder. I think I did well.”
Sandra McElwaine is a Washington-based journalist. She has been a reporter for The Washington Star, The Baltimore Sun, a correspondent for CNN and People magazine, and Washington editor of Vogue and Cosmopolitan. Currently she writes for The Daily Beast, The Washington Post, Time, and Forbes.