ONE THING the National Basketball Association did not need was further evidence that its players had come to define the "me, me, me" generation of professional athletes.
It already had one star player best known for choking his coach. It has another who, in a Nike TV commercial, rejected any notion that he should be a role model. It had a Sports Illustrated cover story detailing the escapades of NBA stars who fathered children out of wedlock and then ignored them. It had any number of players acting foolish on the court (chest thumping and glaring) and off (sexual abuse charges; drinking and drugging; and Dennis Rodman in general).
But then came the six-month labor dispute that transformed the entire league into an ugly advertisement for greed. Even the most passionate of basketball fans -- including me -- could not muster much patience for all the whining about how to split $2 billion in annual NBA revenue.
So, what do we do? With an abbreviated season scheduled to begin this week, do we march straight back into our overpriced arena seats and keep cheering as loudly as we have in the past?
I say no. Not so fast, anyway.
First, we ought to take a good, long look at the people for whom we are cheering. Last year, I became so fed up with the attitudes of the Washington Wizards -- with their collective sense of entitlement and general disregard for their fans -- that I decided to bail on my season tickets.
From now on, I will pick my favorite players not by hometown allegiance or best moves on the court, but by something we have ignored for too long: the kind of people they are.
And so I am heading into the new season with a new favorite player: Dikembe Mutombo of the Atlanta Hawks.
Michael Jordan was His Airness, Mutombo is His Careness.
His story is one that NBA folks ought to be telling every chance they get. And emulating as well.
Mutombo is a tower of a man, 7 feet 2 inches, best known for clogging up the middle of a defense and rejecting shots, the only three-time Defensive Player of the Year in NBA history. But he is so much more his genuine self when helping others far from the glitz of professional basketball.
His top priority right now is raising money and hope for the people of his troubled homeland, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire), the third-largest nation in Africa. Thirty-eight years after gaining its independence from Belgium, it remains a nation without stability, with another civil war raging throughout. It is a land lacking infrastructure, a land in which paved roads and clean water are the exception rather than the rule, in which the most basic health care is desperately lacking.
Mutombo wants to start by building a new hospital and medical center in the capital city of Kinshasa, where he was born and raised. The estimated price tag is $44 million, and Mutombo has pledged the first $2.5 million.
"This is not a small job," he says in his strikingly deep voice. "This is such a big job that I will need a lot of help. But all of my success in America would be pointless if I do not look back to where I come from and help all the people who are still struggling. This is my commitment."
Commitment. Imagine an NBA All-Star speaking to children about the importance of staying in school, setting goals, staying away from drugs, and then thanking them for allowing him to visit them and serve as their role model. Imagine an NBA star adopting four children and giving them all the attention they deserve. Imagine such an accomplished basketball player who does so much for others that a senior member of Congress, Democratic Rep. Louis Stokes of Ohio, takes the floor of the House of Representatives and commends the player for his "humanitarian efforts and selfless giving."
As Juwan Howard of the Wizards puts it, "Dikembe is not only big in stature. He's also so big in the heart."
Gary Payton, All-Star guard of the Seattle SuperSonics, says, "Dikembe is really setting an example for me."
Long before he picked up a basketball, young Dikembe Mutombo, descendant of the proud Luba tribe, cradled a dream that had nothing to do with standing tall and collecting unthinkable riches while running around the sporting arenas of a foreign land.
Mutombo never would have thought about such things as a young teen. Not as the academically talented son of a Sorbonne-educated high school administrator. Not in a nation where medical care was so deficient that one in five children was dying before the age of 5.
"The childhood dream was to be a doctor," Mutombo says. A funny thing happened on the way to medical school, though. Young Mutombo just kept growing. Then he started playing basketball.
After four years at Georgetown University, Mutombo was the first pick of the Denver Nuggets in the 1991 NBA draft. He agreed to a five-year contract worth almost $14 million. He set eight rookie records for the Nuggets and was the only first-year player in the NBA All-Star Game. In a national television commercial, part of a major campaign to launch his signature shoe, Mutombo was shown swatting jet airliners out of the sky, while declaring with all sincerity: "Man does not fly in the house of Mutombo."
Mutombo was living large. But he also needed to make an impact beyond the playing of games and the attendant swelling of his wallet. As Mutombo would put it, "When I move on and people ask me what I've done ... what am I going to say? I just played basketball?"
It is probably a good thing that Mutombo considers all Africa his home and all Africans his people. This allows him a certain solace when conditions are so bad in his own country, so unstable and unsafe, that he has to stay away for long periods of time. It also means he has an entire continent to help.
Mutombo started working with CARE, the international relief agency, in 1992. His first stop was Kenya, where he visited refugee camps filled with masses trying to escape the war and starvation just across the border in Somalia.
After absorbing the unspeakable sadness, Mutombo wondered about bringing the NBA with him to Africa. Not for actual games, but there had to be a way for the league to offer something positive.
By the next summer, the NBA was on its first goodwill tour of Africa, with Mutombo and NBA Commissioner David Stern taking the lead. The tour concluded with five historic days in South Africa, officially ending the longtime U.S. sports boycott of the apartheid regime.
Everywhere they went, the NBA players conducted clinics for youngsters, stressing that the best part of basketball is the way it brings together people of all backgrounds and races, highlighting how the game can teach so much about life. Mutombo would keep saying, "The same principles that apply to success in basketball -- hard work, sportsmanship, discipline and determination -- are also tools for success in everyday life."
Mutombo has continued taking NBA groups to Africa each summer. And he has just accepted a broader role in the international community. On Jan. 14, he was named the first youth emissary for the United Nations Development Programme. His initial responsibility is a global campaign to enlist young people in the fight against poverty.
When pitching his plan for a new hospital, Mutombo often must be an educator before anything else. He explains that the Congo has 47 million people, that it used to be ruled by an erratic and corrupt dictator named Mobutu Sese Seko.
While Mutombo was in college, Mobutu repeatedly broke promises to conduct free and open elections, which led to political and military chaos. Mobutu was forced out by rebel troops in 1997. The new president, Laurent Kabila, renamed Zaire "the Congo," a fresh start for all.
But Kabila has been a disappointment. Violence is again rampant; the new civil war broke out in August. In Kinshasa, electricity has been cut off at times.
How is Mutombo going to build a hospital amid all this turmoil? By the sheer power of will, he says. By believing in and sharing the logic that his childhood dream of being a doctor has somehow, as if by the hand of God, led to this.
At a fund-raising event last September in Atlanta, Mutombo's home since his 1996 free-agent signing with the Hawks (five years for $56 million), he opened the after-dinner remarks with his standard summary of the Congo and its problems. Then he told the saddest story he knows.
"Three weeks ago," Mutombo said, "my mother was sick at home. She really needed to see a doctor. But all the fighting in the streets -- nobody could get her to a hospital where she could be treated. She passed away in the middle of the living room."
At the age of 63, Biamba Mutombo had apparently suffered a stroke, but she also was a victim of her dire surroundings. She could not be treated when she obviously needed help.
"Can you imagine losing a loved one and not being able to attend the funeral because of a civil war?" Mutombo asked, his head bowed.
The big man at the podium had the words of Biamba Mutombo ringing in his ears: "You need to continue to help people so they can continue to help themselves."
His mother used to tell him that all the time. Those were the words by which he had always tried to live -- and those are undoubtedly the words he will be hearing the day he finally realizes his dream. Yes, when he walks through the front door of his new hospital for the first time, chin up, chest out, the perfect picture of a proud Luba, Dikembe Mutombo will indeed be hearing those words.
Jeffrey Marx is writing a book called "The Real Dream Team: A Celebration of Athletes Who Care."
Pub Date: 01/31/99