As the saying in team sports goes, “there is no 'I' in team.” Dikembe Mutombo, eight-time NBA All-Star and member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, wants you to know that there is no I in success either. As the native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo explains: “You cannot succeed in life if you don’t know how to work with people, just like you cannot win a game without your teammates.”
This was a lesson he learned before he ever stepped foot on a court. Mutombo was born in Leopoldville (today Kinshasa), Democratic Republic of the Congo. One of 12 children, he was raised by a family of educators. His father, a high school teacher for 37 years, taught Mutombo that the only way to succeed was to get an education. Mutombo was after the success of which his father spoke but not just for its own sake. It was success that would serve as a means to change his community.
Mutombo left Congo when he was 21 years old to enroll in college in the United States. He attended Georgetown University in Washington D.C. on a scholarship to pursue a career in medicine. He hoped to use his knowledge to combat the outbreak of diseases in his native Congo. However, Mutombo’s 7’2 stature at a school known for its basketball program led him down an unexpected path. Mutombo went on to play and excel at college basketball, leading him to an 18-year career in the National Basketball Association (NBA).
But this was just the beginning. After retiring, Mutombo used the fame and influence gained from his basketball career to carry out the ideals he learned on and off the court. In 1997, he created the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation to improve people’s living conditions in
Congo. The foundations work is best explained in a story.
One day a woman gave birth to premature triplets in Congo. Lacking the necessary medical care, the babies were at risk of dying if not taken to a hospital that could care for them. However, the mother lacked the resources to pay for the necessary care. Hearing of the emergency, Mutombo offered to provide lifesaving medical care to the babies at his state of the art hospital that he opened through the foundation. Mutombo did not care that the family could not pay, his only concern was to “Please, make them live.”
Although unexpected, Mutombo found in sports what he wanted to see in the broader world: togetherness. As he’s said “sport is an activity that brings people together.” Through this togetherness, Mutombo believes that his hope for a better Africa, a better world is possible.
Hazim Hardeman is a graduate student at Oxford University, where he will pursue a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) in Economic and Social History. He is also African Community Learning Program's intern for the #500EmpoweringAfricanStories Project.
Aminata Sy is the founder and president of African Community Learning Program, a multimedia journalist, and a senior at the University of Pennsylvania, where she studies international relations and English. She is also the founder, editor, and publisher of the #500EmpoweringAfricanStories Project.
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