A Hoop Star Reaches Out

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

HE'S 7 ft., 2 in. and still growing - both on and off the basketball court. Denver Nuggets center Dikembe Mutombo seems to be forging a career of international dimensions.

When the Nuggets opened their 1992 National Basketball Association (NBA) season last Saturday night with a 125-121 win over the San Antonio Spurs in double overtime, Mutombo was beginning only his fifth season of playing basketball at any level. Last year, in his first pro season, Mutombo was chosen to play in the All Star Game. This year he's a key to the rebounding NBA franchise in Denver.

Dan Issel, the Nuggets' new head coach, says, "He's going to be the cornerstone on which we build this franchise. He's an amazing guy. Defensively, Dikembe can be as good as the greatest centers who have ever played this game. And his offensive game is beginning to come around."

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It's no surprise that Mutombo is still developing. A native of Zaire who grew up playing soccer, Mutombo was 19 years old when his father and an older brother introduced him to basketball. They sensed that, as a seven-footer, Dikembe would be better-suited to that sport than to soccer. The family had seen videotapes of NBA games at the American embassy six blocks from their home in Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire.

Mutombo was not immediately drawn to the game. In his first basketball workout, he fell and gashed his chin on the pavement. But today he plays with zeal. Nuggets' assistant coach Mike Evans says, "Dikembe is a very competitive person. He wants everybody to play as intensely as he does. This year in training camp we've found it made an impression on the new players when they saw our big guy down there on the floor, scrambling after loose balls. He has a lot of enthusiasm, and it's contagious."

Mutombo's family seems to be a spirited group with a tradition of achievement. His father, who retired two years ago as chief administrator of the secondary school system in Zaire, was selected as one of 12 young people to study in Belgium before Zaire achieved independence in 1960.

One of Dikembe's uncles is a heart surgeon in Kinshasa. "He was a big influence on me," says Mutombo. "I remember seeing him working long hours to save people's lives. My uncle has gone to medical school in the United States, at George Washington University, and that has made an impression on me, too."

While Mutombo was experimenting with basketball in Kinshasa, he and his family began scouting colleges in the United States. A diplomatic officer at the American embassy nominated Mutombo for a scholarship from the Agency for International Development and recommended Georgetown. He also sent a note to the Hoyas's famed basketball coach, John Thompson, to expect a 7 ft., 2 in. freshman from Zaire.

The rest is athletic history: After one year playing intramural basketball, Mutombo became a dominant player on the varsity. He was a Big East Defensive Player of the Year as a senior, and the fourth player chosen in the 1991 NBA draft.

Mutombo is quick to point out, however, that he attended Georgetown on an academic - not an athletic - scholarship.

His degree is in diplomacy and linguistics. He speaks six languages, which serve as a bridge to a new career that is already taking shape. Dikembe has recorded a television commercial for McDonald's in which he touts a hamburger special in five languages. He's also marketing a line of sports clothes in Europe. Meanwhile, he has found time to complete his first course toward an MBA at Georgetown. (Not surprisingly, it was a course in personal financial management.)

All the while, Dikembe has devoted time to basketball in the off season, often working out with ex-Hoya Patrick Ewing, now an all-pro with the New York Knicks.

But basketball and business are not all that concern Mutombo. In August, he visited CARE refugee camps in Somalia and Kenya. He's now an active spokesman for CARE and has joined its board of directors.

"If God can give me the chance," he says, "I want to play basketball for maybe another 10 years, but basketball is not what I want to do for the rest of my life."

Will he return one day to work in Africa? "I think America is a great country, though I love my country, too," he says. "But I want to live in peace.... I don't know where I'll be. Maybe someday I'll be working for the World Bank, the UN, or CARE. Right now, I'm just preparing myself."

In Denver he serves as the Nuggets' representative to a stay-in-school program and gives talks to potential dropouts. "I tell them `You can have anything in life if you work for it.' "

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