- The Washington Times - Monday, April 27, 2009

Dikembe Mutombo was one of the genuine good guys of the NBA.

His humanitarian work is not the product of the NBA’s slickly packaged “we care” marketing program.

His charity work cuts considerably deeper than showing up to a soup kitchen, serving a few meals to the needy and having it captured on celluloid, all in the NBA’s effort to let the ticket-buying public know that its players are generous individuals who can read to students or repair homes in post-Katrina New Orleans.

Or so goes the thinking.

Mutombo needs no public relations machine to celebrate his benevolent spirit.

He started a foundation in his name to help the people of his Congo homeland 12 years ago. The culmination of it resulted in the building of the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital and Research Center in Kinshasa in 2007.

The $29 million, 300-bed medical facility is named after his mother. About $19 million of the funding came from Mutombo, who plans to pursue humanitarian work the rest of his life.

Mutombo has lived by the axiom “to whom much is given, much is expected.”

Not that Mutombo was ever given anything on the court.

He was all elbows and knees, even awkward and robotic, hardly a natural when he first landed at Georgetown. He averaged only 11.3 minutes a game in his first season of eligibility with the Hoyas, no indication of what was to be.

It was his tenacity on defense that lifted him to become part of Georgetown’s troika of big men, the middle one between Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning.

He was the least-gifted one but the one who lasted the longest in the NBA.

He might have been up for a 19th season if he had not gone down in a heap in the Rockets’ playoff game with the Trail Blazers last week.

He became entangled with Greg Oden late in the first quarter and went tumbling to the floor. He was betrayed by his left knee, later diagnosed as a strain. And so, in an instant, Mutombo was done, felled as much by a knee as his 42 years. He was carried off on a stretcher, hardly the finish he imagined.

“Nobody ever thought they’d be carrying the big guy out like a wounded soldier,” he said, fighting back tears.

His was the unscripted retirement announcement, aided by a pair of crutches and a grudging acceptance that he had tempted the basketball gods one too many times.

The Rockets talked him out of retirement yet again in December, and so he returned once more to spell Yao Ming and offer the “finger wag” to those whose shots he erased.

That was his signature gesture. It was playful and fun, even if it occasionally offended his victims.

A four-time NBA defensive player of the year, Mutombo fashioned one of the statistical oddities of a career. His highest-scoring season came when he was a rookie, averaging 16.6 points with the Nuggets. His scoring average plummeted to 13.8 in his second season, which turned out to be his second-highest output of his career.

He was a member of the Nuggets team that stunned the 63-win Sonics in the first round of the playoffs in 1994. That was Mutombo clutching the ball over his head and falling to the floor in joy at the end, one of the enduring images of the NBA.

Mutombo averaged a double-double in his first 11 seasons and appeared in eight All-Star Games. The numbers do not reveal the gregarious soul who speaks nine languages, all in that deep, raspy voice.

“I’ve had a wonderful 18 years of staying injury-free, so I just want to go out with my head up,” he said. “No regrets.”

Nor should there be.

Mutombo lasted far longer in basketball than anyone might have thought possible after his mostly forgettable first season at Georgetown 20 years ago.

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