Originally created 04/01/97

Mutombo off court wears his real face



Atlanta - The pouting expression, the griping about foul calls, and the opponent-taunting finger wave that has drawn the wrath of NBA officials all paint a picture of Dikembe Mutombo. It is a fraud.

Mutombo, All-Star center for the 50-22 Atlanta Hawks, is a 7-foot-2, 250-pound pushover with a warm sense of humor and a giving heart.

It's common knowledge that Mutombo helped underwrite the Zaire women's Olympic basketball team last summer. Less publicized is that he is working to raise $50 million to build a hospital in his native Kinshasa. And that he is so troubled by the ongoing civil war in his homeland that he follows developments daily via the Internet.

A biological dad for the first time with the birth of Carrie Biamba Wamutombo two weeks ago, Mutombo also is the father of three adopted nephews and a niece. Two of Mutombo's brothers died, and in accordance with the customs of his African tribe, Dikembe adopted their children. Among them are Reagan, 13, and Nancy, 12, named after the presidential couple by Kamba Mutombo, who succumbed to a brain tumor at age 33.

The son of a school superintendent who earned $36 a month, Mutombo had his first brush with American sports when Muhammad Ali and George Foreman descended on Zaire in 1974 for the "Rumble in the Jungle." The memory is vivid.

"My mom used to have a place back inside the stadium where she sold some Coke and cigarettes," Mutombo recalled. "We used to go there all the time, and when the fight came, almost everybody in the family had an opportunity to be there in the stadium because we were living only two blocks away."

A boy growing up in Africa couldn't have imagined that he would one day get to relate his experience to Ali sitting in the home of the President of the United states.

Then again, Mutombo could hardly have envisioned such riches as the five-year, $56 million contract he signed with the Hawks last summer.

"I had dinner with (Ali) and President Clinton last year in the White House," Mutombo said. "I mentioned (the fight), but it's really hard to communicate with him now because of his (Parkinson's Syndrome). He shook his head, but didn't respond verbally."

Mutombo came to the United States to attend Georgetown in 1987 - not to play basketball, but to become a doctor. He changed his mind and double-majored in linguistics and diplomacy.

Linguistics is something of a specialty. Mutombo speaks five African languages, plus English, Spanish, French and Portuguese.

A soccer player who didn't take up basketball until he turned 18, Mutombo already was enrolled at Georgetown when Hoyas coach John Thompson learned about him from a member of the U.S. State Department. Talk about having one fall into your lap. Mutombo became of the nation's top centers, following Patrick Ewing and preceding Alonzo Mourning in Thompson's incredible run of big men.

"I got the opportunity to have some great people help me out when I was growing up - my parents, my brothers, coach Thompson, Bill Russell," Mutombo said.

Mutombo is the major difference in a Hawks team that had no chance in the postseason last year, but matches up competitively with any team except Chicago this year. That he is the NBA's second-leading rebounder (11.8 per game and second-leading shot-blocker (3.40) isn't surprising. Mutombo has been one of the league's premier defenders. But he has been better than advertised on offense, scoring at a 13.8-point clip.

"People have criticized me in the past about my offense, but I've always said it was not my fault," Mutombo said. "I didn't get a chance to touch the ball much (in Denver). Coming to the Hawks, (Lenny) Wilkens has found that I can put points on the board."

Another reason to overlook his petulance.