Cause Celeb highlights a celebrity’s work on behalf of a specific cause. This week, we speak with Dikembe Mutombo, eight-time NBA All-Star and newly appointed NBA global ambassador, about his charity work in his native Africa and elsewhere. Born in the capital city of Kinshasa, Congo, Mutombo came to the United States in 1987 on an academic scholarship to Georgetown University, where he was recruited to play on the men’s basketball team. While there, he also earned degrees in linguistics and diplomacy.
The 7-foot-2-inch Mutombo was drafted by the Denver Nuggets in 1991 and became one of the NBA's most-feared shot-blockers in his 18-year pro career. He announced his retirement from the NBA at the end of the 2009 season.
As an NBA Legend and UNICEF global ambassador, Mutombo not only focused on the game on the court but also devoted his time to volunteering. His service included working with the NBA Cares program, especially Basketball without Borders. Mutombo was also the former spokesman for international relief agency CARE, and worked closely with the Polio Eradication Campaign to protect African youth. He also has his own foundation, the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation, that works to improve the health, education and quality of life for the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In March, Mutombo was awarded the Laureus Sport for Good Award in Abu Dhabi in recognition for his work in the Congo through his foundation. The award, which is given to an individual who has used the power of sports to change the world, was supported by Aabar Investments PJSC.
Q: Could you tell me a little bit about Basketball Without Borders?
Mutombo: Basketball Without Borders is a leadership camp that takes basketball to different places around the world, to Africa, Europe, America and Asia. It’s a camp that brings players from different parts of the continent to one city that’s been assigned as the host city. We’ve been going to a different city every year. We bring all the best players from different countries, and we give countries the opportunity to send maybe two or three best players to the camp.
We have those kids and we feed them, we give them uniforms. We give them all the tools necessary for them to go out to their home country, after a week, to go and become a great community leader. We teach them the skill of basketball, which is our number one priority in the camp. We teach them everything they have to do to become a great basketball player.
The most important thing is education. That’s something that we stress every day during the camp. Despite the time that we spend with them — almost 12 hours a day from breakfast to dinnertime — we try to talk to our youth about how important education is in our lifetime. We want them to know that there’s a time and a moment that will come when the ball will not pass anymore. They will need to find their place in society and to find their worth as a human being. We let them know as well that not everyone is made to play professional basketball.
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Q: How did you become a global ambassador for the NBA and what are your responsibilities?
Mutombo: After spending more than 17 years playing for the NBA, in the summertime, I always came back to community service and different basketball clinics. When I retired, I tried to see if there was something available for me to do for the league. I went in for a meeting with the commissioner, and after a few months they came out with the position they have created for me to represent the NBA on a global level. I think a lot has to do with my being international, and speaking many languages. Also, I have worked for the NBA for a very long time and I know everybody here.
Q: How do you think basketball can bring people together in third world countries?
Mutombo: I think basketball can do a lot. Sports are becoming the first thing to do when there’s trouble, when there’s war, to bring people together, to find a way for peace. A lot of countries today are using sports, especially the game of basketball, because it is not a game you can play by yourself. You have to play with other people, you have to learn about the skills and values of communicating with them. I think that’s what basketball brings. It’s like sitting in a classroom, being part of a team.
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I am happy with the way they are using basketball today around the world. You look at an example, like China, where the government is building more than 80,000 basketball courts. You can look at India, where I’m heading to go to the dedication of some basketball courts; we think India is the new frontier of basketball. In Africa, basketball is growing very, very fast right now. In Europe and South America, basketball is becoming really popular.
Q: You run your own foundation as well. Can you tell me about the work you’ve done with your foundation?
Mutombo: Oh, God! We are going to be here all day if I try to describe everything I have done with the foundation. I created the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation back in 1997 for the purpose of going in and improving the living conditions of my people on the African continent, especially in the Democratic Republic of Congo where I came from. Out first mission was to go and build a new hospital. Our next mission was to build a school. The third was to build a basketball arena. We just completed our first mission, which was to build the first new hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 45 years. It cost more than $30 million, of which I donated more than $20 million. I think it was a great success; we are very proud and very happy about it.
Q: You’re also involved with UNICEF. Of all the organizations that you’re involved with, is there one moment where you’ve worked with any of the causes, where you’ve had an “aha” moment of why you do what you do, helping people?
Mutombo: The moment that continues to push me and to drive me — why I love this job — is my work with children. I just love kids. As a kid, I grew up in a poor country, with a poor family that had nothing. I loved anyone who could come into my life, in from the outside, and give me advice that could help me succeed. I believe that there are a lot of people who came into my life that made me Dikembe Mutombo. They made me who I am today.
I ‘m happy to go back, and look over my shoulder, and reach out to so many kids throughout the world. Maybe I can reach out to maybe 2,000, or maybe to 10,000, or 100,000 or even just 2,000, that will make me happy. That’s what I enjoy. Working with UNICEF is just something you cannot say no to. We are all trying to save the world. Children are dying all over the world, in Africa, especially, where I came from. More than 1.3 million children died last year from malaria. Some of these diseases are treatable; some of them are preventable. I am trying to organize a vaccination of our young children so that the future of humanity will be well.
We don’t want to destroy mankind; we want to save it. We don’t want there to be a day, when we are not here, when there won’t be any more people living on Earth. We have our work cut out for us, and that’s why I love working with the United Nations, and especially UNICEF, and the NBA. The work that I do is for the future of the game, with kids who may come into the NBA. I love working with the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation; we are trying to save as many children and women in Africa as we can. I love this work.
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