Dikembe Mutombo is a man who makes his presence felt no matter where he goes. On the court, off the court, in the United States, and around the world, Mutombo is the center of attention, working hard to improve the situation of those around him. I recently had the opportunity to spend some time with him, as I was covering The Unity Cup, a Special Olympics exhibition match that took place on the field at Green Point Stadium in Cape Town, South Africa, prior to the Germany vs. Argentina World Cup Quarterfinal match. Mutombo, along with his wife and three children, was there as a Global Ambassador for Special Olympics, participating in the match and spreading the message of acceptance, dignity, and inclusion for people with intellectual disabilities.
I happened to sit next to Mutombo at a dinner hosted by Special Olympics South Africa. It was early in the NBA Free Agency period and since I was away from the U.S., I hadn’t heard much Free Agency news, so I asked him if he had heard anything. He said, “LeBron is going to New York”. I asked, “Fact, or suspicion?” He said, “Mutombo says so.” And who am I to question Mutombo? Speaking about Free Agency in general, Mutombo said it is good for a player to play 4 or 5 years in a city, then move on. He explained this by stating, “Now, I go to Denver, people love me. I go to Atlanta, people love me. I go to Houston, they love me!” I’m not sure if Tony Allen will be making that same claim 15 years from now. Mutombo also indicated that Hakeem Olajuwon was perhaps the greatest player he played against, saying that, “He’d torture you.” He also shared the story that in one of one of his last years in the league (could have been Celtic’s title Year), The Celtics offered him over four times what the Houston Rockets offered in salary for one season, but he went to Houston because he did not want to live in the cold weather. Apparently Celtcis co-owner Steve Pagliuca was not happy with Mutombo after that, as they are actually good friends (Mutombo had accompanied Pags’ children in doing some volunteer work in Africa).
Asked why he stopped playing at the age of 43 (he was actually still receiving contract offers), he cited the need to be near his family, and the wear and tear from the mental grind of the NBA Season that includes turbulent overnight flights and constant practices, games, bus rides, and hotel rooms. He told the story of one particularly treacherous flight when he played with the Atlanta Hawks when a supposed one-hour flight turned into a seven hour nightmare. The plane was above the clouds in a horrific thunder storm. The plane was bouncing around the sky like a pin-ball. Every time the pilot tried to descend through the clouds, the plane would hit the top of the clouds and bounce back up. He and his teammates were sure they weren’t going to make it. I am not sure if he was joking at this point in the story when he said that he and his teammates were crying. In fact, he said that Mookie Blaylock locked himself in the bathroom because he was so scared and crying so hard!
Oh and my personal goal was to film a Dikembe Mutombo finger-wag. Well, while I did not film it, it did indeed happen in quite a fun way. During the dinner, Dikembe was receiving text messages from a friend with score updates on the Ghana vs. Uruguay World Cup game (everyone in Africa was so excited about this game, and devastated about Ghana’s loss). Anyways, Dikembe reported to us that it was 1-0 Ghana and the game was nearly over. Special Olympics athlete (from Worcester, Ma.) Matt Millett looked at his watch and said that it was probably only halftime. Dikembe disagreed and texted his friend, who indeed confirmed Matt’s claim that it was halftime. I looked at Matt and he knew what to do. He gave Dikembe Mutombo the finger-wag! A taste of his own medicine! Mutombo laughed and graciously wagged back.
Dikembe Mutombo. Down-to-Earth guy. Doing a lot of great work to be of service in the world. We’ll forgive him for turning down the Celtics offer.
Here’s a quick video where Mutombo discusses his work with Special Olympics, and we sneak in a Celtics question at the end for our peeps at 24/7….