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World Class
Rick Telander
November 07, 1994
Dikembe Mutombo, the outgoing Nugget center, makes a big impression in the paint and in faraway lands
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November 07, 1994

World Class

Dikembe Mutombo, the outgoing Nugget center, makes a big impression in the paint and in faraway lands

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Now he just stares at the vista, at Colorado below. He gets out of the car and picks up some snow. He loves Denver, the Mile High City, loves the Nugget T-shirts that say MT. MUTOMBO—5,287 FEET. But at this moment he is reminded of another peeve.

"About a month after I got to Georgetown, in 1987, it snowed. Students are knocking on my door, on my window, saying, 'Mutombo, come out! Snow! Mutombo!' They were so stupid. They thought I came from the bush, not from a city of four million. They thought I'd never seen snow. I told them they were crazy, that there is snow on the mountains in eastern Zaire all the time. I don't blame the students, I blame the American system of education."

The system has affected even his big buddies in the NBA, he discovered. On a charity trip to Africa last summer he had to explain to fellow journeyers and Georgetown alums Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning that he had never seen large animals outside a zoo. "They watched Tarzan when they were growing up," Mutombo says in disgust. "National Geographic never tried to show the other side of Africa either."

On the way down the mountain he is cheered a bit, thinking of the rule changes and how they apply in their uniform stupidity even to the hated SuperSonics. "It's going to shut up Gary Payton," he says. Then he dozes off.

Last summer marked the third time since he joined the NBA that Mutombo visited Africa as an emissary of goodwill. Each time, he went under the auspices of CARE, the international relief agency, and with the blessing of the NBA. He put on basketball clinics for kids in some of the toughest, poorest parts of the world. Along with him on this year's trip, to South Africa, went Ewing, Mourning and Jazz guard John Crotty—all at Mutombo's behest—and various NBA officials, including commissioner David Stern.

Mutombo earned nothing for the trip, nor did he pocket a cent for the earlier visits, which took him to Zambia, Kenya and Somalia while most NBA veterans stayed in the good old U.S.A., kicking back, playing golf, counting up the money from their camp endorsements. Mutombo had gotten near his homeland, but because of civil unrest in Zaire and fears that a majestic-sized returning millionaire might be an easy target, he has not returned to his country since leaving for college seven years ago. "Although I am from Zaire, I consider all of Africa my home and all Africans my people," he says. "On these visits I just try to give hope to people who have no hope. As my father always reminded me, you should remember where you come from, and you should always give something back."

The continent is so fertile, Mutombo says, his deep voice rising, and yet it is so poor. "If we can solve our problems, we can be rich," he states. And yet what he has seen mostly are refugee camps, slums, war victims, disease, bulldozers pushing corpses into graves, suffering, impossibility. "The horror!" Conrad wrote in Heart of Darkness. "The horror!" And yet, Mutombo points out, there is the glory. Last summer he actually ate dinner in Capetown with Nelson Mandela, a man he reckons to be a modern-day saint. Imagine, Mutombo says, Mandela was in prison for 27 years, almost as long as Mutombo has been alive, because of his resistance to apartheid. And now he is president of the country that imprisoned him.

In a column he wrote for USA Today this past August, Mutombo said, "My love for this land, where my family and childhood friends remain, is as strong as ever, perhaps even more so because of what I see each time I return. I must go and help my people."

While sitting in a van in the slums of Soweto this summer, Mutombo was besieged by children who wanted to see his mammoth shoes. Smiling, the center stuck his feet out of the window, to a great roar of approval. "He's an entertaining young man," says Stern, who witnessed the display. "I can't say enough nice things about him."

Nugget president Tim Leiweke opens a folder to an aerial photo of the west side of Denver, the area containing McNichols Arena and Mile High Stadium, homes to the Nuggets and the NFL's Denver Broncos, respectively. He points to a nearby section of land where the Nuggets plan to build their new arena, an elaborate den with luxury skyboxes and access to everything from Denver's new light-rail train system to the city's first public aquarium. Next to the arena there will be an enormous amusement park, a children's museum, restaurants and TV and fiber-optics centers to film and broadcast just about anything that might happen on the premises. All of this must be built efficiently, rapidly and with no tax subsidy from the public. Why?

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