Mutombo Gives to Keep His Country Alive

In the NBA, Dikembe Mutombo, one of the best defensive players in the game, is known for denying people. Off the court, he's known for giving to people in need.

The 7-foot-2-inch Houston Rockets center has donated more than $15 million to the Democratic Republic of Congo, his homeland, in an effort to build a state-of-the-art hospital.

Located in the heart of central Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo is home to more than 58 million people, but inadequate health facilities and lack of health care contribute to millions of unnecessary deaths.

Mutombo, who was named Defensive Player of the Year four times in his 15 seasons in the NBA, hopes to change all that. Through his foundation, he's raised both awareness and a significant amount of money to create a 300-bed hospital in the capital city and his former hometown, Kinshasa.

"Congo hasn't had a new hospital built for more than 45 years," Mutombo says. "In America we are having hospitals built every day. They are practically on every corner."

Life is extremely difficult in the DRC, Mutombo explains: "Most people live off of less than $40 a year to raise their families, and things are falling apart everywhere."

Just last year, AIDS claimed the lives of more than a hundred thousand people there, and malaria is even more fatal, killing people almost overnight.

As a result of inadequate health care, the average life expectancy in Congo remains just 47 years.

"I felt that building a hospital was the No. 1 way to change things," Mutombo says. "[Someplace] where people can go and it is not a road to death but a road to return home."

The medical center, slated to open in September, will house a research center, pediatric wing, surgery suites and a women's center. State-of-the-art technology will allow for telemedicine facilities that will allow for both training and expert advice from abroad.

Doctors will come primarily from the Congolese population; many doctors who have moved overseas will be recruited to return. Additionally, the World Health Organization and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have joined to recruit other medical professionals.

The new hospital will be named after someone very close to Dikembe -- his mother, Biamba Marie Mutombo.

Mutombo learned about his country's medical deficiencies firsthand when his mother died of a stroke in 1998. The country was in civil unrest, and she was unable to get to a hospital because of a curfew

"When I cut the ribbon [for the hospital], it's going to be very emotional for me. All these people are going to wonder who this woman is that gave birth to such a great child that did something this big," he says.

Helping people has always come second nature to Mutombo, and all his life he dreamed of becoming a doctor. He earned an academic scholarship to Georgetown University.

His sophomore year, Hoyas basketball coach John Thompson invited Mutombo to try out for the team, and he played alongside future NBA star Alonzo Mourning and received training during the summer from Georgetown alum Parick Ewing. He was the fourth pick overall in the 1991 NBA draft and has been one of the game's most feared defenders throughout his career.

"I am blessed for the shoes that God gave me, and I cannot forget my mission in the world -- to help people," he says.

"I think that building a hospital will help more people than if I was a doctor, so I'm glad I did it," he says with a big grin.