By Maynard Eaton
He was one of the greatest defensive centers to ever play the game, and now at least one human rights advocate says he has the potential to become the next Nelson Mandela.
NBA Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo was a rare athlete who has gone on to become the NBA’s Global Ambassador and a renowned humanitarian. Both rare achievements.
Last Tuesday night at the Atlanta Hawks game in Philips Arena, he also was bestowed a rare honor when his success on and off the basketball court was celebrated and saluted before a packed house of adoring fans. Mutombo’s No. 55 jersey was officially retired and lifted to the rafters – never to be worn again by an Atlanta Hawks player.
“Dikembe, you were born in the Congo, but you’re a true American success story,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “Tonight’s jersey dedication means more than what you accomplished on the court. You’ve done more than any player to help their community. In fact, in 2007, you single-handedly built a hospital in honor of your mother in the Congo and have since then served over 140,000 people. So tonight I’m proud to be part of this ceremony and to make this arena officially The House of Mutombo.”
Former Hawks stars Bob Petit, Lou Hudson and Dominique Wilkins, along with one-time owner Ted Turner, are the only others to be so lionized.
“This was a great day for the city of Atlanta and for Africa to have one of their own son’s jersey’s retired here,” Mutombo said to a group of reporters following the ceremony. “I had a chance to play in the NBA for 18 years but I never thought my jersey would be retired here in Atlanta, the place I call home and the place I choose to raise my family. I am so happy with Hawks decision to recognize my talents and my gifts. I am so excited today that the city says this place is going to be called The House of Mutombo. That means a lot.”
Mutombo has also done a lot for others, off the court, as an African activist and humanitarian. And, one Atlanta civil rights leader and international humanitarian is urging him to do more.
Joe Beasley, the Southern regional director of the Rainbow/PUSH coalition and a highly respected global activist just returned from the Congo a month ago – a country he calls the “richest place on the planet,” but which still suffers from neo-colonialism exploitation.
“The work he has already done in the Congo is very significant,” says Beasley in praise of Mutombo. “He is in the catbird seat. He can do a lot to help his people. His celebrity could bring a laser beam of attention to the war in the Congo, where some 6 million people have been killed. He is in a unique position in this moment in time to use his influence for the liberation of his people. He could overshadow Mandela.”
During a question and answer session with reporters, Mutombo seemed to embrace his role as agent of change throughout Africa.
“I think I have achieved a lot but I still have more to do,” he said. “I think with the gifts and talent God has given to me I want to continue to make a difference. Our world is facing a lot of challenges right now. People are dying all over the [world], not just from terrorism but from different diseases that nobody is talking about. Most people think that people keep dying from Ebola, but there are even more people dying from HIV AIDS, from malaria. TB is still killing people in Africa, measles, and polio. We still have a lot of work to do so I am willing to be a part of the change. I think that God put me in that position.”
Mutombo played for the Hawks from 1996 to 2001. He was a dominating presence in the middle who raked the rim roughly and religiously. Nicknamed “Mt. Mutombo,” the 7 foot, 2 inch former Georgetown University legend averaged 2.8 blocks and 10.3 rebounds per game during his 18 year career. His defensive prowess led to a record tying four NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards. Mutombo was also an eight-time All-Star and elected to three All-NBA and six All-Defensive teams.
“Having the chance to win two great Defensive Player of the Year [awards] for this organization as a player, it showed something about the true character of the team that we did have which was more focused on defense,” he recalled. “That’s not something many coaches are teaching today. We had a great coach, a great mentor [Lennie Wilkins] – someone I admired so much and loved and respected. It was great. I still regret a lot how the team was broken up. I think we did have a nice core team, but in the NBA a lot of people didn’t respect us.”
Dikembe Mutombo might be best known, however, for his pointer finger and its trademark wave following each one of his blocked shots. That was his signature. So, when I asked him, “Will your finger wave will be with us forever?” He replied with a smile, “That one nobody will ever repeat, no.”