Mutombo has the stuff of a hero

In need of role models, the NBA could start with Dikembe Mutombo, a star center who hasn't forgotten his troubled homeland in Africa.

January 31, 1999|By Jeffrey Marx

ONE THING the National Basketball Association did not need was further evidence that its players had come to define the "me, me, me" generation of professional athletes.

It already had one star player best known for choking his coach. It has another who, in a Nike TV commercial, rejected any notion that he should be a role model. It had a Sports Illustrated cover story detailing the escapades of NBA stars who fathered children out of wedlock and then ignored them. It had any number of players acting foolish on the court (chest thumping and glaring) and off (sexual abuse charges; drinking and drugging; and Dennis Rodman in general).

But then came the six-month labor dispute that transformed the entire league into an ugly advertisement for greed. Even the most passionate of basketball fans -- including me -- could not muster much patience for all the whining about how to split $2 billion in annual NBA revenue.

So, what do we do? With an abbreviated season scheduled to begin this week, do we march straight back into our overpriced arena seats and keep cheering as loudly as we have in the past?

I say no. Not so fast, anyway.

First, we ought to take a good, long look at the people for whom we are cheering. Last year, I became so fed up with the attitudes of the Washington Wizards -- with their collective sense of entitlement and general disregard for their fans -- that I decided to bail on my season tickets.

From now on, I will pick my favorite players not by hometown allegiance or best moves on the court, but by something we have ignored for too long: the kind of people they are.

And so I am heading into the new season with a new favorite player: Dikembe Mutombo of the Atlanta Hawks.

Michael Jordan was His Airness, Mutombo is His Careness.

His story is one that NBA folks ought to be telling every chance they get. And emulating as well.

Mutombo is a tower of a man, 7 feet 2 inches, best known for clogging up the middle of a defense and rejecting shots, the only three-time Defensive Player of the Year in NBA history. But he is so much more his genuine self when helping others far from the glitz of professional basketball.

His top priority right now is raising money and hope for the people of his troubled homeland, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), the third-largest nation in Africa. Thirty-eight years after gaining its independence from Belgium, it remains a nation without stability, with another civil war raging throughout. It is a land lacking infrastructure, a land in which paved roads and clean water are the exception rather than the rule, in which the most basic health care is desperately lacking.

Mutombo wants to start by building a new hospital and medical center in the capital city of Kinshasa, where he was born and raised. The estimated price tag is $44 million, and Mutombo has pledged the first $2.5 million.

"This is not a small job," he says in his strikingly deep voice. "This is such a big job that I will need a lot of help. But all of my success in America would be pointless if I do not look back to where I come from and help all the people who are still struggling. This is my commitment."

Commitment. Imagine an NBA All-Star speaking to children about the importance of staying in school, setting goals, staying away from drugs, and then thanking them for allowing him to visit them and serve as their role model. Imagine an NBA star adopting four children and giving them all the attention they deserve. Imagine such an accomplished basketball player who does so much for others that a senior member of Congress, Democratic Rep. Louis Stokes of Ohio, takes the floor of the House of Representatives and commends the player for his "humanitarian efforts and selfless giving."

As Juwan Howard of the Wizards puts it, "Dikembe is not only big in stature. He's also so big in the heart."

Gary Payton, All-Star guard of the Seattle SuperSonics, says, "Dikembe is really setting an example for me."

Childhood dream

Long before he picked up a basketball, young Dikembe Mutombo, descendant of the proud Luba tribe, cradled a dream that had nothing to do with standing tall and collecting unthinkable riches while running around the sporting arenas of a foreign land.

Mutombo never would have thought about such things as a young teen. Not as the academically talented son of a Sorbonne-educated high school administrator. Not in a nation where medical care was so deficient that one in five children was dying before the age of 5.

"The childhood dream was to be a doctor," Mutombo says. A funny thing happened on the way to medical school, though. Young Mutombo just kept growing. Then he started playing basketball.

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