Last week a group of us met humanitarian and NBA player Dikembe Mutombo after an Indiana Pacers game. It was an experience I will never forget.
Mr. Mutombo is most likely playing his last year in the NBA. The days of him defensively dominating a game or a playoff series are over and he never made it onto the court against the Pacers.
Mr. Mutombo wasn’t supposed to be an NBA star. He grew up in the Democratic Republic of Congo (called Zaire until relatively recently.) The DRC is a large country of great natural and cultural wealth in the heart of Africa. It is also a country that has been terribly and brutally exploited for its vast resources. To read about the Congo Crisis please check out this article.
Mutombo attended basketball powerhouse Georgetown University not to play sport but to become a doctor. He had gotten a USAID scholarship after attending a Salvation army school. It was only when legendary GU basketball coach Jon Thompson saw the 7’2″ freshman on campus that he got a tryout and a basketball scholarship. He was the 4th pick in the 1991 NBA draft.
While Mutombo’s professional career soared, life back in his native Congo had gone from terrible to worse. In 1998, brutal dictator, kleptocrat, and CIA supported Mubuto Seso Seko was overthrown and soon died. The rebels, many of who were would-be kleptocrats themselves, were not able to consolidate power and a massive resource war was on for Congo’s natural wealth.
It is with this back story that Mr. Mutombo has become sports’ greatest humanitarian. In Congo’s capital of Kinshasa, a city of over seven million people, Mutombo has used his wealth and fame to build that city’s only modern hospital. (Indianapolis, with a metro population of about 1 1/2 million has probably thirty hospitals.) a hundred hospitals.) He has given over $10 million to the hospital and has organized other NBA players to donate to build the hospital.
After the game, Mr. Mutombo came out of the locker room to meet with our group. The initial evening had been planned as a social gathering for Midwest Voices for Congo, but also included church and personal friends. There is a small but vibrant Congolese community in Indianapolis that I have become friends with and a number of Hoosiers who are doing great work in Congo. Together, this group is organizing Midwest Voices for Congo, an organization to raise awareness about the Congo situation and to hopefully change policy towards the country.
During our brief meeting with Mr. Mutombo, he talked with Didier and Jose’ in French about what was going on in Indianapolis and in Congo. Both Didier and Jose are from Kinshasa and are now professionals here in Indy. He also signed autographs for the the kids in the group and took time to shake everyone’s hand.
Mark, a member of my church, reached out to give Mr. Mutombo a handshake and thanked him for his great work. Mutombo replied, “it is all God’s work.”
Didier called me up a few nights ago and told me how much his children had enjoyed the game. It had been over a week, but his teenage children and niece were still in awe after meeting with Mr. Mutombo.
I was still in awe, too.