Dikembe Mutombo is revered as both one of the greatest defensive players in basketball history, whose legendary finger wag “inspired a generation of athletes” — and as a humanitarian whose activism has transformed lives in some of the most deprived places on earth.
Born in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) as one of 10, he moved to the US in 1987 at the age of 21 with a scholarship to Georgetown University. Despite a plan to become a doctor, he was recruited by the university’s basketball coach and the rest is history.
In a career from 1991 to 2009, beginning with the Denver Nuggets and playing for teams as storied as the Philadelphia 76ers, the New York Knicks and the Houston Rockets, Mutombo won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award four times and was an All-Star eight times. He blocked dunks from Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. He entered the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015, six years after retiring.
In 1997, he set up the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation to improve lives in the DRC. Over a 10-year period the foundation planned and financed — with an $18.5m personal donation — a 300-bed hospital on the outskirts of Kinhasa, the DRC capital. It was the first modern medical facility built for four decades in the area. He’s won numerous humanitarian awards, including the Goodermote Humanitarian Award from the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health for efforts “to reduce polio globally as well as his work improving the health of neglected and underserved populations in the Democratic Republic of Congo.”
Mutombo has also combined his love for sport and social inclusion. He participated in efforts like the Basketball Without Borders programme by the NBA, in which top NBA stars toured Africa and helped improve infrastructure. Mutombo is also a Global Ambassador and member of the International Board of Directors for the Special Olympics. Similarly, he was a pioneer of Unified Sports, which brings people who do and don’t have intellectual disabilities together to play, and was a SportsUnited envoy for the US State Department, travelling to South Sudan to lead basketball clinics with 50 young people.
Mutombo is also a much loved figure in the US, appearing to do celebrity impressions on the Jimmy Kimmel show, and joking about his relationship with all-time great Michael Jordan.Tags: Africa, Basketball, Democratic Republic of Congo, NBA