It’s rare to be known best by a single, subtle motion of your body, especially when you’re a 7’2 NBA Hall of Famer who was an all-time defender with one of the most booming voices on the planet, but Dikembe Mutombo still manages to speak loudest through one iconic finger wag. If in-game rejections were his strong suit, since his retirement after 19 seasons in 2009, Mutombo’s chief concern has been in creating avenues for aid through his Dikembe Mutombo Foundation, especially in his home of the Congo.
To date, he’s opened the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital, a teaching hospital in Kinshasa, and a school, the Samuel Mutombo Institute Of Science in Mbuji Mayi. He also sits on the board of the CDC Foundation, Special Olympics International, and the National Board for the U.S. Fund for UNICEF, just some of the duties that propelled him to be named one of this year’s honorees of the Stuart Scott ENSPIRE Award, a part of the ESPYs 8th annual Humanitarian Awards.
Dime caught up with Mutombo just before he made the trip to L.A. for the awards ceremony on what the award means to him, plus modern bigs and NBA defence, the explosion and success of African players in the league, his advice for Chet Holmgren and where the status of solid taunts currently stands.
I know you’re flying out to L.A. tomorrow and have a busy week ahead. Are you looking forward to attending the awards ceremony and meeting the other honorees?
Yes, I’m very honored to have a chance to go to L.A. for such a great ceremony — The ESPYs. I’m looking forward to meeting everyone, the honorees from today and from the past, because it’s such a great, special event. It’s a chance of a lifetime to be honored by such a great organization.
What does being the recipient of the Stuart Scott ENSPIRE award mean to you?
You know, it means a lot. Stuart was a great man, a great husband, great father to his family, not just a great reporter. He was one of the funniest guys, who brought so much joy and smiles to so many people every night while they watched him. And he encouraged people to participate in doing good for others. So I’m glad that I’m getting such an honor named after him.
Karl-Anthony Towns is nominated for the Muhammed Ali Sports Humanitarian Award in the same Humanitarian Award class as you. You’ve always used basketball as a bridge for change, you’ve built a hospital and most recently a school in the Congo through your foundation, what does it mean to see younger athletes in the NBA realizing the importance of humanitarian work?
I’m so happy that some of the young people who are following in the footsteps, making a change because of basketball. We’re using basketball to make a change in the world because it’s a great sport. It’s allowed us to be seen on television by millions of people worldwide, it’s allowed us to make money, and allowed us also to make a change. Like Mandela says, sports have the power to change the world, sports have the power to change our communities. So I’m glad that the game of basketball has allowed me to do that.
Do you have any next, big projects on the horizon for or through your foundation?
[chuckles] I don’t want to give too much away, but we have other projects we’re working on. I think the biggest project is to continue to fight for women. Breast cancer and ovarian cancer are killing more women in Africa. Those are my next fights.
There are so many new and exciting African athletes in the league. I’m in Toronto so I’ve had the great luck of seeing Pascal Siakam explode into the versatile player that he is, same with Precious Achiuwa, and hopefully soon Christian Koloko. You were a huge part of the influx we’re seeing now of African players. Do you think the league is just scratching the surface on the potential of African players, whether through avenues like the BAL, or champions of the sport like yourself?
I think I’ve been a great role model for so many of our young people who are coming up. I think I’ve set a great platform to do what I did in social change. I want to inspire them. Because myself, I was inspired by those who came before me, and we should not forget about where we come from. And Africa needs that. If there’s a way for us to go make those changes then we need to go and reach out to the loved ones. I’m glad to see numbers of different players, from basketball and other sports, who are returning back to the continent and making change.
What do you think has led to the influx that we’re seeing?
There’s a great proverb, an African proverb, that says when there’s a problem affecting one part of the community, it becomes a responsibility of everyone living in that part of society. So I think we do understand the problems we are facing, and we want to be part of the change as well.
I wanted to get your thoughts on defense in today’s game. The Celtics and Timberwolves this last season utilized multiple big men with a shot blocker in the middle. The Cavs are an oversized, defensively-minded team, so are the Raptors, does it make you happy to see defense and big blocks coming back as a focal point?
Yes! I think there will always be a place for big men in the game. I was in Vegas last week, and everybody was talking about the return of the big man game. I think big men will always have a place in basketball, because that’s the way the game works inside. Even though we see more guys shooting threes now, nothing has changed. Big men are coming back, and they’re coming back strong, too.
And what do you think of the versatility that’s now demanded of big men? I think of stretch-big, 6’9 type players who are asked to switch and do a little bit of everything.
We didn’t have these kind of 6’9, 6’10 guys shooting threes before. Not shooting threes like they’re shooting today. But when it comes to a post up player like Joel Embiid, the game’s still inside. That’s where you see [bigs] continue to dominate the game inside. Everybody can shoot outside, but there’s nothing like going inside to go fight in the paint.
I agree with you!
[chuckles] When it comes to the playoffs, the ball has to go inside to come out.
You mentioned you were in Vegas for Summer League, did you get to see Chet Holmgren play?
Yes, I did. Very, very talented young player. I think he has a bright future. He’s present on defense, he’s not afraid of anybody. He’s standing tall and he can dribble, he can pass, he can take the ball to the hoop. He’s not holding anything back and I was very impressed.
Being a slim shot blocker, what advice would you have for him in his first season?
Keep working hard and stay in the weight room.
Your finger wag is an all-time iconic taunt. Are there any recent taunts you’ve seen and liked? Did you see Steph Curry’s “night-night” taunt in the playoffs?
[laughing] Yeah I think what Steph did will last for a long time. I was watching some clips online and I saw this kid, he made a shot and then he went on his side and fell asleep. And I was laughing so hard, I said, “What the heck.”
Do you think there should be more taunts?
Steph did it because he’s the best. He’s the league MVP. Anybody want to go that way, make sure that you bring your game with you.
And finally, you had such a long and successful career. You played for 18 seasons in the NBA, retiring when you were 43. Do you think that kind of longevity is going to become more of the norm in the NBA going forward?
You have to take care of your body, and it takes a lot of sacrifice. Maintain your body the way I did throughout my career. Only those who have discipline like that can play a long time. But you will always face challenges from those new generations coming in. For you to maintain your game at that pace.
And what about the mental perseverance?
What I mean about taking care of your body includes the mental component. Cause every time you come back, you’re met with young people who want to go over you, fly over you. And you gotta know, am I mentally fit for these challenges, and for what these young people want to take from me?