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Between Two Worlds

Mutombo focuses on helping Nets and African homeland

November 17, 2002|Barbara Barker | Newsday

Dikembe Mutombo lives in two worlds.

The first is the glitzy, possession-to-possession life of the NBA. It revolves around a ball, celebrity and millions of dollars in material goods. A crisis in this world is a five-game losing streak. A difficult mission is being asked to guard Shaquille O'Neal and helping the New Jersey Nets try to win an NBA title.

The second world is one of incomprehensible statistics, such as an average weekly income of $20 and average life expectancy of 47. The Democratic Republic of Congo, where Mutombo spent his first 21 years, is in a constant state of need. A difficult mission there is getting enough food and medical care to survive.

Every morning, the 7-foot-2 Mutombo wakes up knowing he will have to glide seamlessly between the two, similar to a lithe guard darting in and out of the paint. Every morning he feels the pressure of trying to balance the responsibility of being a good teammate with the responsibility of being the kind of person he believes he should be.

Achieving incredible goals in the first world has helped Mutombo work toward incredible goals in the second. On the court, he is one of the most intimidating defensive presences in the game, famous for sharp elbows and tentacle-like arms. Off of it, he is one of the game's most soft-hearted individuals, having donated millions of dollars and countless hours to help others, especially those in his native Congo.

"A lot of my life is basketball," Mutombo said, "but it's not the only thing God intended me to do." Mutombo has two dreams, two things he believes he must accomplish before he walks away from the game. Mutombo, 36, wants to win an NBA title. And he wants to finish the $14 million hospital he is building for his people in the Congo.

He believes that New Jersey is the place that can help him do both.

Mutombo got close enough to taste an NBA title when he went to the 2001 Finals with Philadelphia. Things in the brotherly city soured last season, however, as the injury-riddled Sixers exited the playoffs in the first round. Mutombo, forced to play a ton of minutes, ran out of gas. He averaged a career-low 10.7 rebounds and became a scapegoat for a lot of the team's offensive problems.

At the same time Mutombo realized it wasn't going to happen for him in Philadelphia, the Nets realized they weren't going to make any headway against Western Conference teams without a bigger defensive presence in the middle. The Nets, who were swept by the Lakers in last season's NBA Finals, have to take a win-now attitude as there is no guarantee that Jason Kidd will return after the season. That's why they were willing to deal two starters -- Keith Van Horn and Todd MacCulloch -- to bring Mutombo to New Jersey.

"It's a good situation for Dikembe and a good situation for us," Net Coach Byron Scott said. "He's at a stage in his career when all that is missing is a championship ring. As a team, that's what we're shooting for. That's the kind of expectations we have. We both need each other. We think Dikembe is really going to help this team."

His dreams off the basketball court are even more difficult to attain.

Mutombo has made a second career out of helping others. His Atlanta-based Dikembe Mutombo Foundation is in the middle of building the first new hospital in the Congo in 42 years, a $14-million project to which he personally has contributed more than $3.5 million. The foundation also has helped inoculate eight million children for polio, or one out of every five people in a country where 20 percent of the children die before their first birthday. It also has shipped $250,000 worth of medical and pharmaceutical supplies to existing hospitals.

Mutombo's largess, however, hasn't been limited to his native country. He has served as a spokesman for CARE, the humanitarian relief-effort organization. He has worked with youth in inner-city schools in Atlanta and Philadelphia. And, since 1999, he has served as the youth emissary for the United Nations Development Programme. In that capacity, he has visited polio victims, spoken to kids on the importance of AIDS awareness, recorded public service announcements in French, English and Swahili and attended the international AIDS conference in South Africa.

"He's a 7-foot-2 guy, but I think he has a bigger heart," Kidd said. "He's the perfect role model."

Mutombo says he learned his giving ways from his Sorbonne-educated father, Samuel. A school superintendent, Samuel supported 10 kids, a wife and a bevy of uncles, aunts and cousins on the equivalent of $37 a month in Kinshasa, the large capital city of what was then called Zaire. While his NBA peers were honing their games in youth basketball leagues after school, Mutombo helped out his family by selling bread, cheese and sausages in a Kinshasa marketplace.

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