Off-the-Court Mutombo Is Quite a Presence Too

Mwadi Mabika plays for the Sparks and for this opportunity, Mabika thanks Dikembe Mutombo.

About seven years ago, Mabika was playing basketball at a camp in her country, and Mutombo's country. Then it was called Zaire. Now it's Congo and in either time it was a country of limited opportunities for sportswomen.

What Mutombo saw was a strong, shy 5-foot-11 player with a tentative shot and unlimited potential.

"Dikembe saw in me something special, maybe even more than I saw in myself," Mabika says. "Dikembe asked me if I would like to come to the United States and when I said yes, Dikembe said he would help me."

Dikembe helped. He helped Mabika get a scholarship to the Massamba School in Kinshasa, the country's capital. He helped her play internationally in Israel and Greece. And five years ago, when the WNBA was beginning, Mutombo pulled strings so Mabika could get the proper papers to leave her country, then made sure she would get an invitation to the WNBA tryout camp.

"Many pro athletes say they are going to do good things for people," Mabika says. "But Dikembe is one of the special people who just does good things."

This is not an attempt to get you Laker fans to start cheering for Mutombo, the Philadelphia 76er center. His assignment, which he accepted enthusiastically if not always effectively in Game 1 of the NBA Finals, is to slow Shaquille O'Neal. Of course Los Angeles does not want to see O'Neal slowed.

And this isn't an analysis of Mutombo's clever ability to tip rebounds to his teammates or a bit of high praise for the way he stuffed Kobe Bryant once Wednesday night, or how his lumbering waltz as he prepares for his slooooowly developing hook shot must take longer than the three seconds he's allowed in the lane, right?

This is about a man who considers himself incredibly lucky to be making millions of dollars and responsible for doing something special with that money.

"I love my country very much," Mutombo says. "There are so many good people, but some bad people too. So many good things can happen there, but many things are very sad too."

It is Mutombo's dream, more than winning an NBA championship by far, to raise enough money to build a hospital in Kinshasa. His goal is to raise $14 million. He donated the first $2 million himself.

His dream, though, was born from a nightmare.

Three years ago, his mother, Biamba, suffered a stroke at the family home in Kinshasa. Even though the house was 10 minutes from a hospital, it was an ill-equipped hospital. And there was a curfew in effect, which happens all the time in a country continually torn by violence. His mother died on the floor of her home. Her son, the seventh of Biamba's 10 children, was both heartbroken and motivated to make changes.

Mutombo says it makes him sick when he goes home to see children dying of AIDs, which is horrible, but also children dying of polio and measles.

"These things shouldn't happen now," he says. "Not anywhere."

When he was growing up, Mutombo had wanted to be a doctor. When he was finished growing up, to 7 feet 2, he was discovered by John Thompson, who then coached at Georgetown.

"So I changed my dream," Mutombo says. "I decided I would come to the U.S. and get a college education and become a great college basketball player. When I was finished in college I decided I wanted to become a great defensive player and rebounder in the NBA."

Mutombo is revealing his dreams because he got criticized for guaranteeing 76er victories in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Toronto and in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against Milwaukee.

"I only say things because I want to accomplish them," Mutombo says. "It is no different than saying I would become a great college player or a great defensive player in the pros. If you don't say what you are going to do, maybe then you can't do it."

When Mutombo was traded to Philadelphia by Atlanta in February for Theo Ratliff, who had become a Philly fan favorite, and Toni Kukoc, a man experienced in making championship runs, there was backlash. Why trade a young Ratliff, even if he had a broken wrist, for an aging Mutombo? Mutombo is sensitive and he heard the critics.

But Mutombo is also classy and so he kept quiet and played. He helped the 76ers beat Milwaukee not only with his defense but with his offense.

He has a hope that this bigger showcase will make people--other NBA players, NBA executives, business people, anybody who is watching the Finals, even the Hollywood bigwigs sitting in the front row at Staples Center who boo him and the 76ers--motivated to donate money to his hospital fund.

"I will still need about $6 million so we can have a groundbreaking," says Mutombo, who returned to the U.S. last summer after a visit to Kinshasa with a mild case of malaria.

Mabika hopes the world will pay attention to Mutombo. For Los Angeles fans, Mabika says, she has some advice. "Root for the Lakers to win," Mabika says, "but for Dikembe to play very well. That's what I hope."

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Diane Pucin can be reached at diane.pucin@latimes.com.

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