Dikembe Mutombo helps grow the game in Africa
The league ambassador works with Basketball Without Borders camp, NBA Africa game and more
JOHANNESBURG – A busy Dikembe Mutombo, with his 7-foot-2 frame, tried to get comfortable in a chair on Tuesday evening before pulling three cellphones out of his sweat jacket pockets. Two are the Hall of Famer’s personal phones and one is from the NBA in his role as ambassador for the league. Considering Mutombo’s busy NBA job, constant worldwide travel, beloved kids yearning for his time that they will soon get, and his quest to get a group together to buy his old team, the Houston Rockets, he might need four phones now.
With the arrival of the NBA’s Basketball Without Borders Camp in Africa beginning on Wednesday, there may not be a bigger face promoting the game in Africa than Mutombo. The Democratic Republic of Congo native will be on hand as an ambassador during the second NBA Africa Game on Saturday night with star-studded rosters that include NBA All-Stars DeMarcus Cousins, Kyle Lowry and Kemba Walker along with Dirk Nowitzki and Kristaps Porzingis against a Team Africa squad that won’t include injured budding star Joel Embiid in uniform.
The 51-year-old Mutombo talked about Basketball Without Borders, the NBA Africa Game, his adopted 7-foot-7 son, his attempt to buy the Rockets, being bullied as a kid, Embiid and more.
Why is this week in Johannesburg with the Basketball Without Borders camp concluding with the second NBA Africa Game on Saturday important to Africa?
This week is big. It’s a big celebration for us as African players. It’s good to see the game grow and rise in the continent. I have said that from ’91 when I got drafted into the NBA that I would do my best and whatever it takes to see younger African players playing the game of basketball. Not just the NBA, but playing the game of basketball.
It has worked very well. The work that our late Manute Bol, myself and Hakeem Olajuwon were able to accomplish, we have set a great product for young Africans to come to the NBA. And the NBA is impressed with that, which is why you see this game is taking place for the second time in the continent. It shows that there is much love and appreciation toward the NBA for its commitment here.
When you see kids coming from all over Africa to this camp hoping to be discovered to come to the States to play in high school, college or even the NBA, how much should they embrace this opportunity?
Big. They embrace this opportunity. They seize the moment. This is the only chance they got. Some of them want to show to the coaches and the NBA officials, ‘Take me to America, please. I am ready. I want to go study. I want to become somebody. If I won’t make it to the NBA I can use the talents and the gifts that God gave to me to contribute to [an American] college or high school to get a free education. Maybe one day I can come back to Africa and contribute or do something for somebody else.
So, they’re happy and I am happy about all the kids who are taking a step to come here to participate in this camp. They are gifted and they just wanted to show the world that they are dying for that chance. Hopefully, there will be an opportunity for so many of them to go to America.
Myself, I adopted one of the kids last year. He is from Congo and he is 7-7. He is 17 years old. He was in the  camp and he was doing so well, but not doing as well as he should be. I looked at myself and said, ‘I used to be like that.’ I wanted to give this kid a chance because so many people gave me a chance, too. So, I put him on a plane and I took him to the U.S. We put him in a school, we’re feeding him. We’re giving him everything and he is going to a private school in Maryland. I am so proud of him. Hopefully, next year he will go to Georgetown.
How much did it change his life?
It changed his life so [much]. He is going to be a senior this year in high school. He’s very happy and he’s working very hard this summer. I think he has a chance to shine at an NBA camp in the future.
How does he remind you of yourself?
He reminds me of when I was young. I was real, real shy. When I used to go to the market in the Congo, people would be running away. They were calling me a ‘ghost.’ I was bullied a lot when I was young in school and in the streets. And now when I go back they cheer for me like I was president. These are the same people who used to boo me.
The same people when I go back to my neighborhood, I say, ‘These people used to laugh at me every morning.’ ‘Look at this kid. Look at how tall he is. Look at how fragile he is.’ They used to call me all kinds of names. Some people used to call me ‘giraffe.’ I never let those things break me down. I kept going.
What advice would you give these campers to help them prepare for the future?
Education. Education is the key of your success. Do not let anyone fool you or lie to you saying that basketball is your only chance to succeed. You can go to play basketball for three to five years in college, but what if you get hurt your senior year? You’ll have a chance to finish college. Getting your diploma can secure you and give you great insurance to go out and have a nice job. So, we have to talk to our kids about that because we believe education is the key to success.
The second NBA Africa Game appears to have much better players than the first time. Are you excited about this exhibition?
I am so excited. A few hours ago, I was in the hotel lobby to see all those young guys and young men who flew in from the U.S. for the first time. Not just to see this beautiful continent of mine, but to be a part of something big. They understand that if the game is to grow, we all need to be on the same boat and travel together to see the fruit of this game. Otherwise, the game will not grow.
After having the game at Johannesburg twice, do you think the next NBA Africa Game will be somewhere else on the continent next time?
We are looking at the logistics. The problem is how can we move all of the young kids. We are bringing more than 100 kids to the camp on the same day and will send them out when the camp is finished. We are looking at the [arena]. The venue is very important. The logistic part of things in South Africa is it can provide the best that you can get.
People are talking about Angola. Angola has some great facilities that we might use in the future. We are looking at some of the logistics of how we are going to build. We are looking at some of the testing in some of the area. I don’t think the game will continue to be played here in South Africa. We will seek another part. Maybe in Senegal or Nigeria one day.
What is the latest news in your quest to buy your former Houston Rockets with an ownership group?
I’m working on it. I’m really close with three potential investors. I need three potential investors. I need three people. My thing will be having three good investors. I’m looking for people who can put a half a billion [dollars] … If you have three or four of them, that’s good. Or one person that can put more than everybody.
Do you like your chances?
It is a dream. It will be a dream, man. I still want to work for the league. But I just want to be like some of the guys Grant Hill, Shaq [O’Neal]. Some of those guys.
Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan?
Michael is a big-timer … You can say I was part of something big [with Rockets ownership]. Maybe 10 years, 20 years from now when the team gets sold, your grandchildren can say, ‘Hey, look what grandpa left behind.’
What do you think about talented yet injured Sixers center Joel Embiid? He has the game and personality. He might have more personality than you.
Oh, my God! I don’t know what you’re saying. Where did you get that from? I love that kid. I will tell you the truth. I love that kid. He’s very talented. I think he is more talented than me at that age when I came into the NBA. One thing he can’t do better than me is he can’t block shots like I do. I know he is watching a lot of my tapes and a lot of my videos.
He will get there. But I just love the kid. I love his game. I love the approach the game he has on any given night the way he plays. There is not much concern if he can get hurt every game or not. He just wants to play the game. I’ve been praying a lot for him, a lot that he will get an opportunity to play a full season in the NBA. I hope it’s coming. He really wants to follow in my footsteps, and I’m happy to see that.
It’s great to see that I’m a role model for someone else in the NBA because Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and some of the great guys that came before me played that role for me. I followed their footsteps.
If Embiid is healthy, how good can he be?
Supergood. Maybe better than me. Offensively, he is so much further ahead than so many of us that have come from the continent of Africa. More than many big men have defensively proven themselves in the NBA. There is nothing we can say about that.
The kid can rebound. He can block shots. I just want him to stay healthy and play the game, because he does love basketball.
Along with building homes, how will you be involved with NBA Cares this week?
NBA Cares is one of the major events here for the NBA. If it weren’t for the NBA Cares initiative, I don’t know where the NBA would be today. I’m happy to be the NBA’s Global Ambassador and playing the role as an NBA Cares Ambassador. We’re showing people from around the world that we are very committed. It’s not just committed with the way our game is being played. But we are also committed to the way our game is being seen.
So, we are in 200-something countries. We are trying to make as much of a difference as we can by investing in schools, libraries, housing projects and making life better with clinics, hospitals, whatever we can do for the next generation. This is a great platform for them to develop.