Weekly Countdown: Mutombo's mission extends beyond basketball
Dikembe Mutombo's hospital recently celebrated its one-year anniversary
The hospital in the Democratic Republic of Congo needs $2 million to stay open
More topics: Yi Jianlian's near-All-Star berth; Rip in reserve; analyzing Orlando
5 New developments from the league's oldest player
5. The making of new friends. "The hospital was going to cost $14 million,'' the 42-year-old Dikembe Mutombo says.
"The day we were doing the groundbreaking, that morning, we come back and we start eating lunch. In the middle of our lunch at the Intercontinental Hotel in downtown Kinshasa [Congo], we are watching CNN on the flat-screen TV in the restaurant, and we see the plane going into the World Trade Center. I saw it in front of my eyes like I was in New York. I was supposed to go back to the U.S. two days later. I couldn't get back. All of my flights are canceled. I had to stay in Kinshasa for another 10 days. It ended up costing me more money, including all of the delegation that comes from the U.S. with me.
"When I got back, with the pain that was happening in this country and the suffering and the loss of the people, I suspend my campaign to build the hospital. There was no way I could go ask all of those people on Wall Street for money, because the pain happened there, those people lost a lot of their friends. So I'm not asking those people for money.''
Just then his head swivels and a smile divides his nose deeply from his chin like the parting of the Red Sea. A young woman is walking by.
"You still feel happy?'' he calls out in his voice that sounds like Louis Armstrong's, a deep growl that makes strangers into friends. "Are you ready?''
"I'm getting ready,'' the young woman calls back. "Today is decorating day.''
The woman is preparing for her wedding. Strangers walk the hotel hallways back and forth and Dikembe Mutombo waves hello. He has been in Oklahoma City for 30 hours and already he appears to know everybody.
4. The production of new shoes. Mutombo is on the verge of retirement. "I'm done,'' he says. "For sure. I told [agent] David Falk, 'Please be sure nobody calls me or calls you.' "
He is 7-2 and has been playing basketball at the highest level for half of his life, since he arrived from Africa to play for John Thompson in 1987. In our conversation he mentions Georgetown once, in a context that is unusual for NBA players referring back to college.
"There were 10 of us,'' Mutombo says of his brothers and sisters growing up in Kinshasa. "We learned how to hustle ourselves on the street by selling bread, candies, gums, whatever we can sell. That's what my father taught us. He taught us from Day One how to be a businessman, how to survive despite the challenge. He taught us that money was not important, but that education was the key. So I am glad I got a good education from Georgetown.''
The Houston Rockets re-signed him on New Year's Eve to be Yao Ming's backup. That Mutombo has played only four minutes (in a recent loss to the Lakers) is no measure of his vigor. He is the most talkative of all the Rockets in the locker room, and during the games he yells assignments from his defensive crouch as if he was under the basket. He was missed by his former teammates over the first two months of the season, especially by Yao.
"I was getting a call from Yao Ming every day,'' recalls Mutombo, who was being recruited by the Celtics, Spurs and other teams. "[Yao said] 'Deke, don't go nowhere.' 'Deke, give me some time.' 'Deke, I'm talking to them.' "
So welcome is Mutombo's guidance and friendship that Yao paid for him and his family to visit Beijing last summer to experience the Olympics in his company.
"We have security, we have cars, we have people and he took care of everything. That's Yao,'' Mutombo says. "He really wanted me not just to know him, but also to know where he's coming from, to know his people.''
Thanks in part to his relationship with Yao, he has signed with the Chinese manufacturer Peak to produce a Mutombo basketball sneaker replete with his No. 55 and a logo of his finger wagging back and forth.
"The crazy thing is they're giving you the contract even though they know your career is at the end, but they want to create a line that will carry your legacy,'' he says. "By the time I retire, I want to see if I can have a shoe that can be sold in Africa that will allow every African child to have the shoes at the low cost of $15 to $20. So every parent can afford to put the shoes on the feet of their kids.''
At the time of our recent meeting, Mutombo has been wearing his new shoes to practice.
"It is a beautiful shoe, but they are making a few adjustments for me,'' he says. "They need to fix it for my baby toe on the side, to give me more room.''
After so many years his bare feet are gnarled at their ends, like the exposed roots of an oak tree.
3. Reacting to the new economy. "Then in 2004,'' he says, continuing the story about the hospital, "I called the architect. I said, 'We're healing up right now in America, so we need to go back to do what we love to do.' The architect said, 'If you want me to go back to the hospital project, the price is not going to be the same, because the dollar has lost value and the price of the materials and the equipment went up.' "
The cost of the hospital rose from $14 million to $29 million.
"So now we cut the hospital in half,'' he says. "We build the first phase with 175 beds, and we say another 125 beds we will build later. Instead of having 70 beds for infectious disease and 100 beds for women, we cut everything to 50. That's what happened. That's what we did. We built the first phase of the hospital, which cost $21 million.''
Of that $21 million, he says $18 million came from his own pockets.
2. Launching the new appeal. "We have celebrated the first year of the opening Dec. 7,'' he says of the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital in Kinshasa, named after his late mother, who died in need of medical assistance 10 years before the doors opened in 2007. "We celebrate the first year when the world is crashing. Economically the world is crashing, spiritually the world is crashing. There is war all over the places right now, in Africa, in the Middle East, in Southeast Asia. We have to stay strong, to continue to do God's work. Otherwise all of these people will perish.''
An American consulting firm has told Mutombo that the hospital may become self-sustaining within another three years. This year, he says, the hospital is in need of $2 million to remain open.
"If 100,000 people will each donate $20 to the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation, we will have $2 million to give treatment to women and children and the oldest people who are dying every day from malaria. There is a child dying in Africa every 35 seconds. Last year alone more than 2.5 million children died in Africa because of malaria. It costs maybe $10 to treat each person. So imagine when somebody is donating $20, he is already saving the life of a child at the hospital.''
Mutombo has extended his playing career in part because the NBA provides him with a platform to support the hospital.
"This has brought me much closer to my beliefs, in how God uses people,'' he says. "I am one of those guys whose life reflects so much on the Old Testament, of how God used Moses, how God used Joshua. After Moses disappeared in the desert, Joshua got a call in the middle of nowhere that it was his duty to take the children of Israel home. And he prayed to God, he said, 'I have no army, I have nothing; I am not Moses: I don't have that intelligence.' God said, 'I choose you to do this thing.'
"We don't know what kind of role and what kind of impact we have on this society. Do you ever care about the guy who picks up the trash in your community? Do you wonder, after he picks up your trash in the morning, where does he go to live? Do you ever ask him if his community is in peace, is there anything you can do? Because he is the one who is picking up the trash in your community so you can have peace, so you don't have mosquitoes or no animals.
"You might see a problem in Africa and you can say, 'I am not from Africa, I can not be part of that.' But you don't know that if by paying $20 or $30 to that particular organization, that you save the life of two children or three children in that hospital.''
1. Investigating the newest mission. "My daughter -- she is one of my nieces that I adopted -- is getting married,'' says Mutombo, who has walked down the hallway to visit with the women who are decorating for the wedding. "She just got engaged five days ago.''
"Ohhh,'' they sigh in chorus.
"So I want to check it out,'' he says. "Because now I have to prepare for my wedding. I've got to start figuring it out.''
He inspects the chandeliers. He asks about the price of the 1,600 red roses they have purchased. He is an NBA player, running a hospital in Africa, selling shoes out of China, and seeking advice for his adoptive daughter's wedding from new friends who happened to be passing by.
"So you don't have a planner for the wedding,'' he says to them.
"We're doing it ourselves,'' the bride says.
"Because I was thinking about that,'' says Mutombo, casting down a serious expression that makes his new friends feel at ease. "Everybody has to downsize these days.''