Dikembe Mutombo. Big Man. Bigger Heart.

Dikembe Mutombo with Special Olympics athletes in South Africa

Throughout this exciting week-end, there has perhaps been no greater celebrity presence than NBA legend and tremendous humanitarian, Dikembe Mutombo. Mutombo, his wife, and three beautiful children have present throughout every function associated with The Unity Cup. He has basically turned himself over to Special Olympics for the week-end to help spread the message of unity, acceptance, inclusion and dignity for people with different abilities. Matt Millett, John Millet, and I ended up sitting with him at dinner the other night and we chatted about a wide range of topics. Of course, my own ignorance to manners and culture was the ice-breaker of the evening. There was a beautifully decorated silver plate in front of me, with a smaller appetizer plate next to it. I innocently took some appetizers off a tray in the middle of the table and put my food on the nice silver plate. Well, as Mutombo pointed out to anyone who would listen, that plate is strictly for decoration, and the plate we were supposed to eat off of was the appetizer plate, and the servers would bring the dinner plates. What can I say? I’m an ignorant American.

Of course, as sports fans, we wanted to talk hoops with him. Since it is NBA Free Agency season, I asked if he had heard any new news on free agent moves. He said, “LeBron is going to New York”. I asked, “Fact, or suspicion?” He said, “Mutombo says so.” And who am I to question Mutombo? He also indicated that Hakeem Olajuwon was perhaps the greatest player he played against, saying that, “He’d torture you.” He also shared the story that in one of one of his last years in the league, The Boston Celtics offered him over four times what the Houston Rockets offered in salary for one season, but he went to Houston because he did not want to live in the cold weather.

Asked why he stopped playing at the age of 43 (he was actually still receiving contract offers), he cited the need to be near his family, and the wear and tear from the mental grind of the NBA Season that includes turbulent overnight flights and constant practices, games, bus rides, and hotel rooms. He told the story of one particularly treacherous flight when he played with the Atlanta Hawks when a supposed one-hour flight turned into a seven hour nightmare. The plane was above the clouds in a horrific thunder storm. The plane was bouncing around the sky like a pin-ball. Every time the pilot tried to descend through the clouds, the plane would hit the top of the clouds and bounce back up. He and his teammates were sure they weren’t going to make it. I am not sure if he was joking at this point in the story when he said that he and his teammates were crying. In fact, he said that Mookie Blaylock locked himself in the bathroom because he was so scared and crying so hard!

Oh and if you’ve read this blog before, you know my personal goal has been to film a Dikembe Mutombo finger-wag. Well, while I did not film it, it did indeed happen in quite a fun way. During the dinner, Dikembe was receiving text messages from a friend with score updates on the Ghana vs. Uruguay World Cup game (everyone in Africa was so excited about this game, and devastated about Ghana’s loss). Anyways, Dikembe reported to us that it was 1-0 Ghana and the game was nearly over. Matt Millett looked at his watch and said that it was probably only halftime. Dikembe disagreed and texted his friend, who indeed confirmed Matt’s claim that it was halftime. I looked at Matt and he knew what to do. He gave Dikembe Mutombo the finger-wag! A taste of his own medicine! Mutombo laughed and graciously wagged back.

Dikembe Mutombo. Down-to-Earth guy. Doing a lot of great work for the Special Olympics Movement. Involving his family in this work. An honorable man.

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