"When you take the elevator to the top," said Dikembe Mutombo, "please don't forget to send it down, so that someone else can take it to the top." For the collegiate All American, eight-time NBA All-Star and international humanitarian, that elevator took flight upon his arrival to Georgetown University in 1987.
Born to a family of eight children in a middle-class section of Kinshasa, Zaire (now Congo), Mutombo attended the Jesuit-run Institut Boboto to receive his high school diploma, and joined his older brother Ilo on the Zairean junior national team in 1986. Mutombo's notoriety caught the attention of U.S. development officer Herman Henning, who forwarded a videotape to Georgetown on the 7-2 center.
Mutombo arrived in Washington in 1987 fluent in nine languages, but the Scholastic Aptitude Test was foreign to Kinshasa and Mutombo sat his freshman season as a result. He spent his freshman year acclimating to speaking English and to university life. Athletically speaking, he was only an intramural player, joining with junior college transfer John Turner in what might have been the most imposing IM team in Georgetown history.
Despite some campus notoriety, Mutombo was virtually unknown outside the Hilltop. A clerical error by Basketball Times listed the sophomore-to-be as only 5-10, and as word of Mutombo's size and agility spread through the Big East community, some opposing coaches were sure that John Thompson had pulled a fast one on the magazine's editors.
Adding Mutombo came at a critical time for the Hoyas' recruiting efforts. Following Patrick Ewing's graduation in 1985, Georgetown had not secured a suitable replacement for its center position. 6-10 Grady Mateen was ineffective and quit the team late in his sophomore year, while 7-0 Ben Gillery was often played only a few minutes each game owing to his limited offensive skills. Mutombo's combination of height, attentiveness to defense, and solid fundamentals were a perfect fit, especially if highly prized recruit Alonzo Mourning chose to join him at Georgetown. Mourning signed with the Hoyas in the fall of 1987, and the era of the big man at Georgetown was back.
(Contrary to some claims, Mutombo did not attend Georgetown as a pre-med. Mutombo was enrolled in the School of Languages and Linguistics, and was the only SLL graduate to have played varsity basketball.)
Mourning and Mutombo debuted in the Hoyas' 1988-89 season. Behind an otherwise veteran lineup, Mutombo was still a work in progress, averaging only 11 minutes a game to bring his skills up to speed in American basketball. Even in limited action, one could see the enormous potential. His shots, at close range, were largely unstoppable, and his 70.7% field goal shooting smashed a 22 year record for accuracy. Of the 23 games in which he scored in 1988-89, he didn't miss a shot in ten of them. While his overall scoring and rebounding totals proved modest (3.9 pts., 3.3 rebounds), his shot blocking skills were without peer. Mutombo collected 75 blocks in his freshman year, including a 12 block effort against St. John's that set an NCAA single game record.
The key to Mutombo's shot-blocking prowess was as much mental as physical. Being 7-2 (with a size 22 shoe) helped, but Mutombo never learned the bad habits of many American college centers that would jump at a head fake or try to swat the ball into the third row. Mutombo was uncanny in waiting for the ball to be launched, then simply rising to deflect the ball down.
Mutombo's development continued in 1989-90. He started 24 of 31 games, averaging 10.7 points and 10.5 rebounds. With an increase in time to 26 minutes a game, he continued to serve notice of his emerging skills: 10 rebounds and 10 blocks against North Carolina in the ACC-Big East Challenge series, 17 points and 15 rebounds against Pitt, 22 and 18 against Villanova. He averaged 15 points and 13 rebounds a game down the stretch, shooting 68% from the field. Despite the talent on the team, the Hoyas dropped three of its last five and exited in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. Mutombo was named first team all-conference and few doubted that he was a rising star in college basketball.
With Alonzo Mourning saddled with a foot injury through much of the 1990-91 season, Mutombo became the scoring leader for the Hoyas. Moving to plays beyond the dunk, his scoring percentages dipped to a mere 58% from the field, but he led the team with a 15.2 per game scoring average.
In the season opener versus Hawaii-Loa, Mutombo claimed only the second recorded triple-double in Georgetown history: a remarkable 32 point, 21 rebound, 11 block effort. He scored a career high 34 points (13-16 from the floor, 8-8 from the line) against Jackson State; ironically, one of his quieter games was a six point, nine rebound game against Southern Indiana, which featured Dikembe's older brother Ilo. (For the record, Ilo had 14 points and 11 boards against his younger brother.) From December through mid-February of that season, Mutombo posted 16 straight games leading the team in rebounds.
Mutombo's signature game was found in the 1991 Big East tournament. In a game that defies description, the Hoyas shot 25 percent from the field in the quarterfinal against Connecticut, but won by eleven, thanks to a 13 point, 27 rebound effort from Dikembe Mutombo. For the series, Mutombo scored 34 points and collected 44 rebounds. He was named all-conference and All America honorable mention selection in 1991, ending his career third all time in blocks, with an amazing mark of a block every six and a half minutes he was on the court.
At season's end, Mutombo was ready for the next step. Following graduation in 1991, he was selected as the fourth pick in the 1991 NBA draft by the Denver Nuggets. "I like to sit back and listen to how people say how great some of these [draft picks] are now," Coach Thompson remarked after the draft, "because in a few years Dikembe's going to surpass them all."
After 15 seasons in the NBA, Mutombo has scored over 11,000 points, over 11,000 rebounds, and is second all time in blocked shots. But he remains a unique presence in the NBA, a player mature beyond his years who never gave into the materialism seen by some in pro sports.
"I'm not going to buy 10 or 11 cars and wear gold, I just wasn't raised that way," Mutombo said at the time of his draft. "I've been reading the books they use to teach at Harvard Business School. I plan to put most of my money in the bank."
But instead of banking the money, Mutombo has put it to much better use. His efforts on behalf of humanitarian causes in Africa and his singular determination to build a hospital for his hometown of Kinshasa has earned him recognition and respect the world over.
"When Dikembe came to me with the idea about starting this hospital, I was stunned. I didn't know what to tell him," said Mutombo's cousin, Dr. Louis Kanda. " He told me that God was going to help him do this. He is an amazing young man to even think about doing something on this large a scale."
Despite numerous challenges in building a hospital from scratch, the 300 bed hospital named in honor of Biamba Mutombo, his late mother, opened in 2006. Amidst a city of 6.7 million, the hospital was the first primary care facility built in Kinshasa in over 40 years.
"He is such a hero [in the Congo] that everyone wants to exalt him," said one of Mutombo's former high school coaches in a 2001 Philadelphia Inquirer article. "Musicians invoke his name in songs because it makes everyone pay attention."
In addition to raising money for the hospital, Mutombo has been a leader in international development efforts against the spread of polio, AIDS, and malaria in Africa. Mutombo actually contracted malaria during an overseas trip and was sidelined for six weeks during the 2002-03 NBA season.
"Malaria is treatable, only in Africa they don't treat it well," said Mutombo in a 2002 USA Today article that noted that 5,000 Africans die every day from the disease. "I learned a lot from the way I was treated in America; maybe I can take this knowledge back to my hospital in Africa."
When his career finally ends someday, greater challenges await Dikembe Mutombo. Politics, perhaps?
"Why [does] this young African want to do something that has never been done on the continent of Africa?'" said Mutombo in the Inquirer article cited above. "The question was [always] why, why, why, why, why? There was concern that I was going to try to run for office....President Mutombo? No, no, no. There has never been a politician in my family, and I am not going to try to be the first."
In the years before the NBA and the international acclaim, the Georgetown media guide wrote this prophetic note of this graduating senior: "The story of Dikembe Mutombo is, however, much more than the story of a big basketball player who set records in college. It is the story of a young man who leaves the security of his home, family, country, and language in order to discover things about himself. In that process of that discovery, he touched the lives of thousands."
And when all is said and done, Dikembe Mutombo will reach millions more.