Basketball star Dikembe Mutombo made a name for himself with the Houston Rockets and Atlanta Hawks, blocking shots and wagging a cautionary finger in the faces of opponents.
But being a National Basketball Association fixture for 18 seasons was never his dream. It was simply the ticket to a life of blessing that allowed him to bridge the affluence of the West with the vast needs in his home continent: Africa.
Hosted by Kennesaw State University‘s Coles College of Business, he challenged attendees at the “Think Local, Act Global” event to think about their impact on the world while eating their “fancy breakfast” at the Georgian Club.
“You have to realize – as I’m having this beautiful meal, how many kids around the world are going every day without food?” he asked.
Mr. Mutombo learned early on not to expect life to be easy. He was born the seventh of 10 children to a father who made $37 a month as a teacher in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. At 10 years old, he contributed to the family income by selling bread in the markets of Kinshasa, the capital city.
Later, he enrolled at Georgetown University on an academic scholarship. Since grade school he had dreamed of becoming a doctor, but his path to a pre-med degree was interrupted when basketball coaches and the university president approached him on campus one day.
“I didn’t like it; it was one of the sports that I hated,” Mr. Mutombo said of basketball. “But it’s like they say: Man may have his own plan, but God’s plan is much bigger than what we are.”
He soon realized he would have to choose a path: Practice was scheduled at 4 p.m., the same time as his lab sessions.
While he had to give up his doctoral dreams, his double major in diplomacy and linguistics have served him well throughout a post-NBA career that has enabled him to honor his initial passion: saving lives.
Through the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation founded in 1997, he raised money to build a state-of-the-art hospital in Kinshasa and named it after his mother, Biamba Marie Mutombo. Mr. Mutombo says he put up $24 million of the $40 million raised to build the controversial project, which he said faced opposition from the U.S. government and other aid groups.
“We knew where we wanted to be, we knew the difference we wanted to make. We knew the contribution we wanted to make on the society. We made people believe in us because there was no hospital built in Congo for over 45 years,” he said.
Now, the complex has nearly 430 nurses and physicians, along with the latest medical equipment, Mr. Mutombo said, lifting the region by providing much-needed training and jobs.
He said German giant Siemens hadn’t wanted to sell him some high-end machines because no one in the region could operate or repair them. He removed that obstacle by sending multiple physicians to be trained, he said.
The 7-foot Mr. Mutombo, equipped with a winsome smile, a deep, throaty voice and a larger-than-life persona, has become a fundraising machine for the hospital, which he said is on its way to becoming self-sufficient.
“The first three years I had my pen every day cutting checks,” he said, but now the hospital has reduced required annual support from more than $3.5 million per year to $25,000-$30,000 per month.
He said the hospital is an easy sell because it has received a lot of media attention and welcomed high-profile guests including former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
“It does exist and it does perform, so it makes it easy for people to say, ‘I’ll give my $20 so some women can give birth there, and some kids can get treatment for malaria,'” he told Global Atlanta in an interview after signing autographs and taking pictures with a long line of breakfast attendees.
When the hospital is taken care of, he will turn his attention toward building a school in honor of his father, he said.
That is, if he has time in between other engagements.
In addition to running the foundation, Mr. Mutombo is employed by the NBA as a global ambassador, working on using sports as a tool for good around the world. He recently found himself on the top of a mountain in South Korea for the 2013 Pyeongchang Special Olympics World Winter Games, where he participated in the ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Over the last 20 years, he has helped build 75 basketball courts in South Africa, meeting a request by Nelson Mandela to use sports to develop the country’s international ties. In the late 1990s, Mr. Mutombo was also an international spokesman for CARE‘s work in Dadaab, a huge refugee camp in Kenya.
He called the camp one of the most heartbreaking places he’s seen, saying that it caused him to question whether his meager contributions to this world were worth anything at all. Still, he maintained that he’s proof that one person can effect change if they remember the plight of the poor.
Mr. Mutombo’s reputation as the consummate humanitarian doesn’t seem to have been tarnished by his alleged role in initiating a botched business deal involving more than four tons of (possibly counterfeit) gold in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo.
According to a United Nations report, the deal was a scam that resulted in its Houston-based financier losing $30 million, a portion of which is thought to have gone to a regional warlord complicit in the ruse.
Mr. Mutombo generally shies away from discussions about the longstanding ethnic and political strife in the eastern part of his native country.
But he told Global Atlanta that he laments the war, which was at its most intense during 1997-2003 but has seen more flare-ups even since a multilateral peace framework was signed in February by the leaders of African countries, the United Nations, the African Union, the European Union and the United States.
“I don’t like to go in the East. It’s too dangerous. Too much violence. It’s so painful to see how many women are still dying in my country every day, as we are talking today,” Mr. Mutombo said.
For more information on the foundation, visit www.dmf.org.