You are here

2016 Silver Anniversary Award winner: Dikembe Mutombo

After leaving the security of home, Mutombo flourished on a foreign path

Dikembe Mutombo, 2016 Silver Anniversary Award winner

Weary of watching his neighbors die from treatable diseases, Dikembe Mutombo yearned to become a doctor, return home and help those closest to him. Growing to 7 feet 2 inches, though, Mutombo thrived in a different arena, but it hasn’t stopped him from helping those in need. He parlayed a basketball career into a life devoted to impacting countless others around the world.

Mutombo was notorious for the physical defense he honed under coach John Thompson’s tutelage at Georgetown University and through 18 seasons in the NBA. A finger wag followed each blocked shot and his elbows flogged opponents who challenged rebounds.

Today, though, his softer side has earned him lasting acclaim.

A reluctant teenager

Born Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean Jacque Wamutombo on June 25, 1966, in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of the Congo (then Zaire), he was the seventh of 10 children.

Despite reaching 7 feet by his teenage years, Mutombo cared little about playing basketball. He trained in martial arts and shined as a goalie in soccer, the continent’s most popular sport. Ilo, the family’s oldest son, had to drag his sibling to the court.

After stumbling through his first few practices and playing just one year in a junior league, Mutombo was elevated to Zaire’s national team. There, he began to play internationally and catch the eyes of American coaches. But it wasn’t until Thompson, who had also played as a center, met Mutombo that his prospects took flight.

“I learned a lot under coach Thompson,” Mutombo said during his September enshrinement ceremony at the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “I learned about the game of basketball, but most importantly, I learned how to be a man in this society.”

A new world

Mutombo spoke a half-dozen languages, but not one word of English, when he stepped on to Georgetown’s campus in 1987 with a scholarship in hand. As a freshman, Mutombo was ineligible to join the varsity basketball team and studied in the university’s program for English as a second language while being tutored up to six hours a day. He often called Ilo, who had earned a scholarship to the University of Southern Indiana, for moral support because he could not afford to make the call to his parents in Africa.

Mutombo’s break came as a junior, when he averaged 10.7 points and led his team in rebounds. His senior year, Mutombo averaged 15.2 points and 12.2 rebounds and was the Big East Conference Defensive Player of the Year. He also garnered interest from NBA scouts and was on the cusp of attaining a future that looked nothing like his past.

Fulfilling a promise

Mutombo was selected fourth overall by the Denver Nuggets in the 1991 NBA Draft. Mutombo’s impact was immediate and, as a rookie, he was named to the first of eight All-Star teams.  During his career, Mutombo was also voted the NBA Defensive Player of the Year a record four times and was second all time in blocked shots when he retired in April 2009.

Having earned millions of dollars and worldwide fame, Mutombo didn’t settle into an easy retirement. Instead, he worked toward keeping a promise he had made to himself as a boy in Africa. He became a spokesman for CARE, an international humanitarian aid group, and visited Somali refugee camps in Northern Kenya in 1993.

In 1997, he began the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation to improve quality of life and accessibility to medicine in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. By 2006, Mutombo had personally financed half of the $29 million needed to complete a 300-bed hospital on the outskirts of Kinshasa, where many of the area’s 10 million residents live in poverty. It was the city’s first modern medical facility to open in nearly 40 years. He named it for his late mother, who died of a stroke in 1997 and inspired him “to look at the world with love and kindness.”

Since its opening, the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital has treated more than 140,000 patients.

“I wouldn’t have had the impact that I’m having today if I didn’t play the game,” Mutombo told reporters before his Hall of Fame induction ceremony. “I’m now treating more people than any doctor could have in his lifetime.” 

A professional humanitarian

As often as he earned awards for his play, Mutombo has garnered equal recognition for his efforts off the court.

In 1999, he received the President’s Volunteer Service Award, the United States’ highest honor for volunteerism. In both 2001 and 2009, his accomplishments for raising money for the Kinshasa hospital earned him the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award, presented by the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

In 2009, Mutombo was appointed the NBA’s first global ambassador by then-commissioner David Stern. In this role, he travels through Africa, Asia and the Middle East to grow and celebrate the game of basketball.

Today, Mutombo lives in Atlanta with his wife, Rose, three children and four nephews and nieces adopted from two deceased brothers.  He remains active in transforming lives not only in his native home, but in the American city that first adopted him. Recently, in partnership with his alma mater, the Mutombo Foundation started an initiative that provides care for visually-impaired children from low-income families in the Washington, D.C. region.

"When you take the elevator to the top," Mutombo says frequently, "send it down, so that someone else can take it to the top."