Here’s an athlete that
deserves admiration
and respect

Aug 29, 2006 4:47 AM

I’m a little old and jaded to have developed a sports hero, but I have, and I am about ready to lay out $17.99 for an NBA T-shirt with his name and number on it, and wear it to the next cocktail party, if an invitation would only come along.

I’d buy his shoes, too, but he wears a size 22, a little spacy for me.

His name is Mutombo, and the jersey number is 55, in red, like the Houston Rockets’ Red Rowdies wear.

Actually his name is Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean Jacques Wamutombo, but that didn’t fit in headlines, so it got shortened along the way. It has been a very long way, from Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly known as Zaire.

As regular readers of these sermons know I have a shortage of respect for many professional athletes. I have worked with and around them all my adult life, and a considerable number of them are long on muscles in their arms and short on those between their ears.

Every so often, however, a professional athlete rises above his breathren, literally and figuratively, and my new hero towers over all of them right now.

I have admired Dikembe Mutombo on the basketball court since his college days at Georgetown, when he and his teammate Alonzo Mourning created what was known as Rejection Row under opponents’ baskets.

I admired him then, and all through his 15-years of pro wandering with the Denver Nuggets, Atlanta Hawks, Philadelphia 76ers, New Jersey Nets, New York Knicks, and for the last two years with Houston.

Although his glory days as the best defensive player and shot blocker in the NBA are past, I have more unlimited deep respect for him now than ever before.

Alonzo Mourning once described Mutombo as "full of the joy of life," and that is the impression I have always had of him. When you are 7 feet 2 and weigh 265, you can possess a huge smile, and Mutombo’s lights up everything he does or says. The smile spreads joy, and so does the man.

Professional athletes in this country can make obscene amounts of money, and Mutombo is one who did. He had a four-year, $68 million contract with the Nets, and he spent much of it, not in the usual pro format of expensive jewelry and cars and homes, but on projects for mankind, most recently a state-of-the-art hospital in his native Congo, for the impoverished there who cannot afford medical care.

When Mutombo was a boy, he wanted to be a doctor. He picked Georgetown with that in mind, and because he had an uncle who was a doctor in Washington. His father was a teacher, and in a story in the European edition of Time three years ago, writer Jeff Chu pointed out that Mutombo needed only six and one-half seconds on the court at the time to earn the $450 that his father used to make in a year.

When two of his brothers died, he and his wife adopted their four children, to keep their own three company.

He provided equipment and funding for the Congo’s national women’s basketball team to enable them to play in the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

He supported the Global Polio Eradication Initiative, something he was in a unique position to do, since he speaks nine languages.

And then, after his mother died, he set out to build a national monument to her memory. It was due to open September 2, but violence in the Congo may delay that a bit. It is named the Biamba Marie Mutombo Research and Teaching Hospital, and $15 million of his own money, and a lot more that he has raised in the last decade through his persuasive personality, has been poured into it. It will be a hospital for a nation, and all in it.

You don’t just like a man like that. You admire and respect him as one of the great men and athletes of our age.