Patrick Mutombo isn’t who you think he is
The Raptors’ assistant coach is making a name for himself as a budding artist
OAKLAND, Calif. — Patrick Mutombo knows the question you want to ask him. He’s heard it a million times, from Toronto to Denver to South Africa. Wherever basketball is played or taught, people approach him because, like the sons of basketball greats such as Tim Hardaway and Shaquille O’Neal and Patrick Ewing, they just have to know:
“Are you Dikembe Mutombo’s son?”
He is not, despite at least one news outlet calling him Dikembe Mutombo’s cousin. The two know each other, their wives are friends, and they’re even from the same ethnic group and tribe in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. But Patrick Mutombo is neither the Hall of Famer’s son nor his relative, unless in a Joel Embiid, we’re-all-from-Africa sort of way.
“I am not related to Dik,” Patrick Mutombo said emphatically. Though the confusion doesn’t actually bother him.
The Mutombo who never played for the Denver Nuggets, Atlanta Hawks and Philadelphia 76ers is actually completing his third year as an assistant coach with the Toronto Raptors, who are headed back home for Game 5 of the NBA Finals after surprisingly taking both games in the Golden State Warriors’ home here in Oakland last week. This Mutombo is also a renowned painter.
If you catch Mutombo, 39, at any time of the day other than on the court working with the likes of Kawhi Leonard or Marc Gasol, he’s usually painting. He brings his paints and brushes and canvases with him on nearly every road trip. Team assistants regularly come into his hotel room and see his painting tools sprawled across the floor. On the hotel elevators it’s not odd to spot him with giant rolled-up pieces of canvas. The Raptors only realized they had a budding Henry Ossawa Tanner (he’s a famous black painter, look it up) on their hands when they caught Mutombo purchasing art materials while on the road.
Born in Kinshasa, Zaire (present-day Democratic Republic of the Congo), Mutombo was always artsy. He remembers as a kid going to the home of an elder in his neighborhood and immediately smelling the oil paint and seeing beautiful scenery paintings of African landscapes. He had a penchant for doodling at the time, but he wasn’t serious about the craft and said he wasn’t that good at it. For comparison’s sake, I tell him that I could draw a mean stick figure as a child; he clarifies that he was more advanced than that.
“It was in me,” he finally relents.
But his parents knew all along, reminding Mutombo that he always saddled up to artists and painters in the Congo and Belgium, where the family eventually relocated.
Meanwhile, Mutombo, who grew to be 6 feet, 6 inches, also picked up basketball. He played college ball at Metropolitan State University of Denver, winning two Division II national championships. After leaving school he made stops in Greece, Italy and the NBA’s developmental league, but a back injury ended his playing career in 2010.
The next year, he started his coaching career with the Nuggets under head coach George Karl. (Imagine having the last name “Mutombo” while living in Denver and working for the Nuggets. Things can get confusing.) He then spent a season with the San Antonio Spurs’ developmental league team before joining the Raptors ahead of the 2016-17 season.
It was while playing in Italy in 2008 that Mutombo got serious about his painting. His daily routine became: breakfast, morning basketball practice, critiques from a local renowned painter, afternoon practice, dinner, nonstop painting from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m., three hours of sleep, before starting the process all over again.
During this time he was “studying proportions and colors and developing a library,” he said. He’s since become a student of the art world, studying the greats such as Vincent van Gogh on how they became successful and how their art has stood the test of time. He now regularly travels with at least four to five books on art and his magnifying glasses to study paintings.
Last year, at the behest of his sister (also an artist) and his wife, Mutombo held an exhibition at his home in Toronto, showcasing 35 pieces to family, friends and a few colleagues on the Raptors staff, including head coach Nick Nurse. “That’s when they realized, ‘Hey, this is not just a hobby, this is for real, for real; he does this,’ ” Mutombo said.
Nurse, who was named head coach last June, has purchased three paintings from Mutombo, including one of jazz pianist Thelonious Monk, which multiple media outlets, including Sports Illustrated, noticed was hanging in Nurse’s home. Raptors assistant coach Sergio Scariolo has bought a painting as well.
“It’s really cool,” Nurse said of Mutombo’s art skills before Game 4. “He’s really, really talented as an artist in a number of paintings, sculptor, everything.”
No players were invited to the exhibition, though, and at least two — Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka — did not take too kindly to that omission, according to Mutombo.
Ibaka, in particular, takes every chance he gets to play 21 Questions with Mutombo about his art. (After watching Ibaka attempt to grill Kawhi Leonard on Ibaka’s online cooking show, that’s none too surprising.) Mutombo, in a very exaggerated yet accurate impersonation of Ibaka’s deep voice, said Ibaka always asks: “What is this? What does this mean? Explain this to me.”
A lot of Mutombo’s works are portraits of black bodies and faces, including one pastel painting of a black woman’s face with gold hoop earrings and large facial features characteristic of those of African descent. For “Art of the North,” a pop-up art exhibit put on by the team in January made up solely of Raptors-inspired artwork, he drew an image of four black men in Raptors warmups and various gladiator helmets. He named that painting Mercenaires.
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Im honored to be a part of #ArtOftheNorth from January 10-13 @livenation! #ArtOftheNorth is a Pop-up #artexhibit featuring 100 pieces of #torontoraptors inspired art created by 40 international and local artists. Hosted by the @raptors in collaboration with @consciousbb! #art #artexhibition #artxraps #artofthenorth #raptorsnation #torontoraptors #consciousbasketball #livenation #toronto #thesix #the6
Though Mutombo is not trying to send a political message with his work, such as how Kara Walker explores race and gender in hers, in time he believes he will.
“All I’m trying to do now is say, ‘Hey, this is how I perceive the world, and feel free to join me in my journey,’ ” he said. “It’s as simple as that.”
Painting and professional basketball don’t normally blend together, but something that happened to a Raptors player last week makes Mutombo the foremost expert on the matter.
On June 3, it was reported that Leonard was suing Nike, claiming the shoe apparel illegally attempted to trademark the “Klaw” logo design Leonard allegedly started sketching while in college. Mutombo, perhaps more than anyone else in the league, understands Leonard’s frustration with what amounts to intellectual property theft, something all too common for artists.
“I almost want to say it comes with the territory. An artist has to protect themselves,” he said.
“Ultimately, this is the product of your labor. And you have to be able to respect it, honor it, and protect it.”