Dikembe Mutombo: The long view


How NBA star Dikembe Mutombo came to save untold lives in Africa and transform a country.

At the clang of the bell marking the end of the school day, third-grader Dikembe Mutombo grabbed his schoolbooks and loped across the wide street in Kinshasa, capital of Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), to the American Embassy, his movements as graceful as a gazelle. His friends, always three strides behind, were in hot pursuit, all eager to see the latest American movie shown free daily. But only Dikembe stopped at the bulletin board to read articles about the U.S. where he soaked up every word about the astronauts, President Jimmy Carter and sports, particularly basketball. 

“I was fascinated when I saw movie clips of the Harlem Globetrotters or NBA players like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar,” says former NBA All-Star Dikembe. “They were tall like me, so I thought everyone in America was tall.” 

Because of his obsession, his friends dubbed him “Young American.” He took the teasing in stride and went one step further. “In elementary school I called myself “DikeStar,” a name worthy of a Harlem Globetrotter,” he says. “It didn’t matter that I didn’t know how to play basketball, I wanted to be one of them. I had no way of knowing that one day that dream would become reality.”

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How NBA star Dikembe Mutombo came to save untold lives in Africa and transform a country
The list of Dikembe’s future plans is nearly as long as his seven-foot, six-inch wingspan.
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The long view

How NBA star Dikembe Mutombo came to save untold lives in Africa and transform a country.

KickerThis is a kicker.

At the clang of the bell marking the end of the school day, third\-grader Dikembe Mutombo grabbed his schoolbooks and loped across the wide street in Kinshasa, capital of Democratic Republic of the Congo \(DRC\), to the American Embassy, his movements as graceful as a gazelle. His friends, always three strides behind, were in hot pursuit, all eager to see the latest American movie shown free daily. But only Dikembe stopped at the bulletin board to read articles about the U.S. where he soaked up every word about the astronauts, President Jimmy Carter and sports, particularly basketball. I was fascinated when I saw movie clips of the Harlem Globetrotters or NBA players like Kareem Abdul\-Jabbar, says former NBA All\-Star Dikembe. They were tall like me, so I thought everyone in America was tall. Because of his obsession, his friends dubbed him Young American. He took the teasing in stride and went one step further. In elementary school I called myself DikeStar, a name worthy of a Harlem Globetrotter, he says. It didnt matter that I didnt know how to play basketball, I wanted to be one of them. I had no way of knowing that one day that dream would become reality. While in elementary school, he played hard, studied hard and set his sights on attending college in the U.S., a goal that seemed unattainable for a child from one of Africas poorest and most violent countries. But Dikembe was resolute, as well as observant. All around him, childhood friends and their families were dying of malaria, measles and polio diseases he knew were preventable or curable everywhere, it seemed, except in the heart of Africa where life expectancy was tragically short. The bright boy with the big grin, deep voice and spindly legs that seemed to grow longer by the week became a favorite with embassy employees who taught him English and gladly shared news of their homeland. By the time he reached high school, his goal hadnt wavered. Somehow, some way, he was going to earn a scholarship to an American university, get a medical degree and return to help his countrymen.

**2**

**Education is key** Dikembe Mpolondo Mukamba Jean Jacque Wamutombo was a fitting name for a member of a prominent family in the DRC. He was the seventh of 10 children born to Biamba and Samuel Mutombo, a teacher, principal and then superintendent of a Jesuit school system. Though his father never earned more than $34 a month, Samuel made a lasting impact on thousands of Kinshasas children, including his own. From an early age, we were taught, not only the value of education, but to look after those less fortunate, Dikembe says. We were accustomed to having strangers in the house because my mother never turned away anyone who was hungry or needed a safe place to sleep. Their modest home with its bright blue walls was located in a middle\-class neighborhood near the center of Kinshashas crowded city center. By U.S. standards, it was small, particularly for the Mutombos where the shortest person his mother was six\-foot\-two and his siblings ranged from six\-foot\-five to six\-foot\-ten. At seven\-foot\-two, I am the biggest tree in the family, Dikembe says, laughing. But just beyond the city lay a vast slum teeming with millions of Kinshasans that sprawled over the flat countryside as far as the eye could see. At night, the flicker of candles from the corrugated makeshift shanties cast eerie shadows over the landscape. The contrast was striking. Instead of busy paved roads congested with traffic in the heart of the city, narrow dirt paths littered with trash zigzagged between the shanties butted one against the other. Because of overcrowding and lack of plumbing and clean water, disease ran rampant. Without medical care, thousands died of measles, dysentery, tuberculosis, pneumonia, especially malaria the DRCs most deadly disease. Countless children orphaned by disease and frequent civil wars scavenged through dumps or begged for food. Those born with deformities were simply left on the streets to die. Nearly half of school\-age children cant attend school and the maternal mortality rates are staggering, he says. One out of seven children under 5 years old dies every year from preventable diseases. Although schools in the DRC are called public, theyre far from free. Run by religious organizations or nonprofits like the Salvation Army, they rely on tuition to remain viable. It is this combination of tuition and the requirement for students to wear uniforms that make costs prohibitive for millions of families. The Mutombo family was the exception. Due to Samuels position with the school system, tuition was free for their two daughters and eight sons. We all looked out for one another, Dikembe says. My parents set the rules for our conduct and discipline, but each sibling looked after the next in line. The sister who came before me looked after me, and I looked after my younger sister. Our job was to make sure that the younger kids got to school on time and did their homework. His unusual height was not always an asset, particularly during his teenage years, about the time he neared his full seven\-foot\-two. One day when his mother sent him to the market, he was hounded by a rag\-tag gang of hoodlums. He managed to get away, but for a boy who was kind to everyone and sensitive about his height, it took him a long time to get over the humiliation. Academics came easily for Dikembe, who excelled in the sciences. He also picked up languages easily and was fluent in French the official language of the DRC as well as Spanish, Portuguese and five central African languages. He graduated with top honors from the Institut Bobo and set his sights on attending college in America and becoming a doctor one day. But neither his high academic scores nor agility on the soccer field were enough to get him there. He needed a bit of a miracle. That miracle came in the form of a basketball camp. The first time I played, I tripped while learning how to block, and I split my chin wide open, he says. It was not a good beginning. Despite that first awkward attempt, his size and athleticism quickly caught the eye of a visiting American diplomat and former basketball coach, who sent word of the tall, bright Congolese to Georgetown Universitys then head coach, John Thompson Jr. On his advice, Dikembe applied for a U.S. Agency for International Development academic scholarship and got it.

**3**

**The college man** With visions of the America he had seen on the big screen, Dikembe landed in D.C. after a 24\-hour flight, and the shock was immediate. Compared to Kinshasas provincial airport, Dulles was a jungle of humanity with loudspeakers announcing arrivals and departures, confusing signage and hoards of people scurrying in every direction. Even the university was overwhelming: the number of cars on campus, the expanse of greenery, the tall trees and the myriad of buildings were baffling, particularly during his first few weeks. Dikembes dormitory room was directly across the hall from mine, says Charlie Burke, a junior who would become a mentor and lifelong friend. We met for the first time when we opened our doors at the same time. Out walked this giant of a man. I know I was gawking, but I was so in awe of his height, I could hardly speak. Then Dikembe broke into his thousand\-watt smile and laughed in that deep Cookie Monster voice. We became immediate friends. Though Dikembe had studied English in the DRC, he struggled with American slang. Fortunately, Charlie spoke French, a bond that got their friendship off to a good start. Charlie became his unofficial guide and introduced him to his favorite American food, pizza, and Hyroops Big and Tall Store where Dikembe was able to buy clothes that actually fit. I think his shoes increased four sizes because it was the first time in his life he could buy a pair that fit his size 22 feet, says Charlie. As an English\-as\-a\-second\-language student, Dikembe wasnt eligible to play with the Hoyas basketball team his freshman year, so he and Charlie joined an intramural team. It was a blast, says Charlie. Without a doubt, he was the greatest intramural athlete in Georgetown history. It wasnt long before life became routine at Georgetown for the DRC native. Fellow students became accustomed to seeing his head tower over campus crowds, and he quickly made friends. Still, his height brought some surprises. One day, Charlie heard a loud crack of broken glass in the dormitory and ran toward the sound. Dikembe was sprawled out on the floor amid chards of glass and even the door frame, he says. He explained that he was late to class and forgot to duck when he went through the outer door. But instead of complaining about the large bruise turning Technicolor on his forehead, Dikembe laughed at himself. It was one of the qualities that endeared him to classmates. In his sophomore year, Dikembe became eligible to play with the Hoyas. Coach Thompson nurtured the young athlete, but worked him hard. Dont worry about making points, he said. Just block shots and rebounds. Dikembe was a quick study. During his first year on the team, he blocked 12 shots in a single game a school record. By building on the shot\-blocking power of Dikembe and his teammate Alonzo Mourning who also became a lifelong friend Coach Thompson molded the Hoyas into a powerhouse. Alonzo and Dikembe became the most feared defensive duo in college basketball at that time. That first season, 1988\-89, was one of the Hoyas best. They dominated the Big East and advanced to the Final Eight where, after beating Princeton and Notre Dame, they fell to Duke University, a perennial powerhouse. With his success on the court came a reassessment of his priorities. After Coach Thompson assured me I would be drafted by the NBA, it hit me that I could make a much bigger impact on the DRC with the money I earned as a professional player than as one doctor in a country of 60 million, he says. So I changed my major from pre\-med to linguistics and diplomacy.

**4**

**A stellar career** After graduating Georgetown in 1991, Dikembe was drafted by the Denver Nuggets. He was an instant multi\-millionaire. It was one of the happiest days of my life, he says. I knew one day I could truly help my people. At the time, the Nuggets were ranked last, but Dikembes shot\-blocking and rebounding ability sent ripples across the league. During his premier season, he averaged 16.6 points, 12.3 rebounds and nearly three blocks per game. He became the first player ever selected for the All\-Star Team during his rookie season. The following year, he was again selected for the All\-Star Team and was named the NBA Defensive Player of the Year. He also developed his signature move. After blocking a players shot, he would point his right index finger at that player and wag it from side to side as a playful warning: _No, no, no. Not in my house do you score._

Commissioner David Stern told me I couldnt do that anymore, and even talked about suspending me, Dikembe says. I wasnt trying to insult anyone. I was just having fun. In they end, they fined me $1,000 a game. That wag cost me a lot of money, but it caught the eye of sponsors, so I made a lot of money, too. Dikembe became a spokesperson for Nike and other sponsorships soon followed, including Geico Insurance where his good\-natured antics were an instant hit with TV viewers. During his 18\-year career, Dikembe played with the Denver Nuggets, the Atlanta Hawks, the Philadelphia 76ers, the New Jersey Nets, the New York Knicks and the Houston Rockets. But in a playoff game against the Portland Trailblazers in 2009, Dikembe collided with Greg Ogden and injured his knee. It was a career ender, and he announced his retirement at the conclusion of the playoffs. On September 11, 2015, his first year of eligibility, Dikembe was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, and Atlanta Hawks retired his famous number 55 jersey. The following year, the Denver Nuggets followed suit.

**5**

**Love and marriage** During breaks in the basketball season, Dikembe returned to Kinshasa to visit his family and always volunteered to talk to students taking English lessons at the embassy. It was a way to thank them for helping me get a scholarship and being such an important force in my life, he says. His short speech in July 1995 had unexpected consequences. At the end, he asked the audience if anyone had questions, and a young woman in the back row slowly raised her hand. Are you married? she asked. I laughed and said, No Im not. And at that moment, everyone else in the room faded from view, even the ambassador. I couldnt take my eyes off of her. She was the most beautiful woman I had ever seen. The next day, he returned to the embassy and asked to speak to the woman. When they pulled me out of class and told me that Dikembe wanted to talk to me, I got really nervous, Rose says. I was embarrassed and felt it was totally improper. What can it hurt, the embassy official asked. Here is a great man, a hero of the Congo wishing to speak to only you. I finally agreed. Their budding romance was nearly grounded by distance. Dikembe had to return to the U.S. the following day, and Rose refused his invitation to visit or even to communicate with him. But Dikembe persisted. He wrote down his brothers name and address and convinced her to go there at an appointed time to use his diplomatic phone, which permitted them to talk for free. Over the next few weeks, the two became acquainted over four\-hour phone conversations. The 6,510 miles between them melted away as they talked about the things they had in common. Both were religious, had strong ties to education, and were interested in medicine. Dikembe told her about his lifelong wish to become a doctor, and she confided she wanted to study nursing. He had graduated from Georgetown, the university of her dreams. After several weeks of marathon phone talks, Dikembe asked Rose to marry him. She surprised herself by agreeing. Dikembe and Rose were married in a traditional Congolese ceremony a little more than a month after they met. Since Dikembe was in the U.S. working with the team and Rose was in Kinshasa, his brother stood in as proxy. They planned to renew their vows later in America. Shortly after the wedding, Rose traveled to the U.S. with Dikembes mother, Biamba, along with two nieces and two nephews ranging in age from 6 to 11. Before his mother returned to the Congo, the newlyweds decided to adopt all four children. Following the 1996 basketball season, the couple had a lavish religious ceremony in Washington, D.C., with 500 guests in attendance, including members of both families who traveled from the Congo and Europe.

**6**

**Delivering on a promise** During his NBA years, Dikembe began his philanthropic career as a spokesperson for CARE and then became the NBAs first Global Ambassador, a position created especially for him. In 1997, at the peak of his NBA career while playing with the Atlanta Hawks, he established the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation \(DMF\) with the goal of bringing low cost health care to the poor. Although there was a modern hospital in Kinshasa for people who could pay or had insurance, healthcare was abominable to nonexistent for the poor. At public clinics and the lone hospital, pharmacy shelves were empty and patients had to bring their own medications, food and sometimes beds. Unfortunately, Dikembes efforts didnt come soon enough to save his mother. In 1998 she had a stroke and died because there was no ambulance to transport her to the hospital. There was a civil war in the Congo at the time and an imposed curfew, says Dikembe. If my dad had left during the night to take her to a hospital, both would have been arrested or shot. Weve always believed that if she had been able to reach a nearby hospital, she would have recovered. The death of his mother helped crystalize Dikembes plans. He would build a modern hospital in the heart of the slums where it was so desperately needed. It would be an homage to Biamba, who taught her children the Bible passage, to whom much is given, much shall be required. In 1999, the DMF sent its first shipment of medicine and pharmaceutical supplies to needy medical clinics, plus 140 hospital beds. That same year, the government agreed to donate 12 acres of land for the new hospital. The following year, the DMF shipped an ambulance to the city and broke ground for the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital. As the hospital took shape, the foundation continued to send desperately needed supplies to medical facilities in the Congo: 10,000 doses of de\-worming medication; two additional ambulances; insecticide\-treated mosquito nets to help stem the spread of malaria and equipment for digging wells. Raising money proved far harder than expected, Dikembe says. It was a pain in the butt. With the help of grants and funds from the NBA players and owners, I raised about $6 million from donors who made significant gifts. Over the years of construction, I wrote personal checks totaling $23 million. He also had a lot of critics who doubted that a basketball player could actually build a hospital. There are a surprising number of people who dont want to see you succeed. They doubt your motivation, he says. Some thought that I wanted to run for political office in the Congo. Instead of applauding me for taking the initiative, they tried to beat me down. But like his determination to attend an American college, marry the woman of his dreams and succeed on the basketball court, nothing was going to stand in his way. The Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital opened in December 2007.

**7**

**Landscape transformed** On a warm day in May, Dikembe, 50, sits in a big leather chair behind a massive desk in his new office in Marietta, not far from the home he and Rose built for their seven children, ages 14 to 33. A plethora of trophies and awards on the bookshelves behind him form a fitting backdrop. Hes wearing a business suit, shirt and tie tailored to fit his long, lean frame, is relaxed and talkative until his cellphone rings. He excuses himself to answer it, then presses an intercom and asks his longtime executive director, Susan Johnson, to bring in the contracts he needs to sign. She gently reminds him that he has to leave for the airport in less than an hour and hands him an itinerary for the long journey to Africa. The achievements by the DMF in the Congo are massive, but the staff consists of only two employees. As chairman and president, Dikembe receives no salary, nor do his board members. He confides that Susan is the cog that makes the DMF wheels turn and keeps me on schedule. Thats not an easy job, he says. The second employee, Alicia Smith, maintains the large database of donors, including Goldman Sachs, the Coca\-Cola Company, the Segal Family Foundation, Bloomberg Philanthropies and Pfizer. Once he arrives in the Congo, Dikembe hits the ground running and is hands\-on with patients, helping medical personnel administer vaccinations or assisting volunteers fit patients with hearing aids. A segment about Dikembe on the TV show In Depth with Graham Densinger shows him crouched down, helping a young girl test her hearing aid for the first time. The child gasps with delight. For a moment, Dikembes eyes fill with tears, then he gives her a bear hug and moves on to the next recipient. The look on their faces when people hear sound for the first time never gets old, he says. He points to the new equipment at the hospital, none more celebrated than the 64\-slice CT scanner purchased in 2010, the first in the Congo and only one of three in Africa. It is his prized possession. I call it my baby, Dikembe says. He also points with pride to hospitals state\-of\-the\-art neonatal unit. Without warning, a 4\-year\-old boy dashes toward Dikembe, who scoops him up and throws him in the air. See this little guy, Dikembe says to the shows host. He fit in the palm of my hand when he was brought here. Look at him now. The little boy giggles, hugs Dikembes neck and whispers something in the big mans ear. He calls me Daddy Dikembe, he confides. On the last day of his visit, Dikembe drives an hour outside the city to his favorite restaurant overlooking the Congo River. As soon as he steps out of the car, scores of people pour out of the fields to see him, a testament to his hero status. Since the inception of the hospital, the landscape around it has changed dramatically. Its amazing how one thing can transform a community, he says. Before the hospital was built, there were no modern structures outside the city. Now there are low\-rise hotels, shopping centers and grocery stores, and the main road from the airport has been widened from two to six lanes. Tragically, the slums not only remain, they continue to spread into the countryside like spilled molasses. Dikembe sighs and takes a look around him. The Congo is a country of spectacular beauty and grinding poverty. It will take decades to change it. The list of Dikembes future plans is nearly as long as his seven\-foot, six\-inch wingspan. He wants to establish a Center of Excellence for Womens and Childrens Health, create a Hospitality House for the hundreds of volunteers who travel from abroad to donate their time and expertise, and build the Samuel Mutombo Primary School emphasizing science and technology in his fathers village. Thats why we are always involved in fundraising mode, he says. People dont have to give a lot of money. For $15 a month, you can save a woman who has cervical cancer; $10 provides malaria treatment for a child, he says. Instead of paying $4 for a cup of coffee, donate it to a worthy nonprofit. Give whatever you can, and always help people in need. You dont have to be rich to make a difference. When Dikembe was growing up, going to the hospital was a place people went to die. Now its a place where people recover and live, he says. Id like to think Ive built a fitting memorial to my parents and made them proud.

Behind the story

[Click above to read more of our Personal Journeys.](http://www.myajc.com/personaljourneys)


**ABOUT THE STORY** I first met Dikembe Mutombo while on assignment with Simply Buckhead magazine and realized he had a story to tell as big as his seven\-foot\-two\-inch frame. Though his height is somewhat startling to someone five\-foot\-one like me, hes warm, charming and has boundless energy. Dikembe can laugh heartily at a joke one moment, then talk with dead seriousness about the plight of people in the DRC, where a half\-million children die every year from preventable causes. To learn more go to [dmf.org](http://dmf.org/). **Mickey Goodman** **Freelance writer** **personaljourneys@ajc.com**

**ABOUT THE REPORTER** **Mickey Goodman** is an award\-winning journalist and columnist who has written for national and regional publications. She co\-authored three memoirs, including Eva Friedlanders, Nine Lives of a Marriage A Curious Journey. Mickey is president of the southeast chapter of the American Society of Journalists and Authors and is active in the Atlanta Press Club, Atlanta Writers Club and Georgia Writers Association.

**ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHER** **Curtis Compton** joined the AJC as a photo editor in 1993 before returning to the field as a staff photographer. Previously he worked for the Gwinnett Daily News, United Press International and the Marietta Daily Journal. He has a bachelors degree from the University of Georgia and won a World Hunger Award for his coverage of the famine in Sudan.

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