Basketball Star Dikembe Mutombo on Sports, Leadership

“You cannot succeed in life if you don’t know how to work with people, just like you cannot win a game without your teammates.”

That is what basketball great Dikembe Mutombo told young African leaders taking part in a June 26 live Twitter chat. For more than an hour, Mutombo, who was born and raised in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), responded to questions about topics ranging from sports and leadership to gender equality and his charitable health care foundation. The chat was the latest in a series hosted by the U.S. Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) Network.

Mutombo, who serves as a global ambassador for the National Basketball Association (NBA), said future leaders need to stay focused. “You cannot let anything distract you when you’re trying to achieve something. You have to keep the course.”

Mutombo came to the United States from Kinshasa at the age of 19 to study medicine at Georgetown University on a scholarship. At 2.18 meters tall, he soon was recruited to play on the university’s highly regarded basketball team. After graduating in 1991 with bachelor’s degrees in linguistics and diplomacy, Mutombo was drafted by the Denver Nuggets. He played for five other NBA teams before retiring in 2009.

For Mutombo, the value of sport goes beyond spirited competition. “Sport isn’t about your height, your race, your gender. It’s about your ability to perform,” the athlete said. “Sport is an activity that brings people together” and can teach players “soft skills” such as ethics and communications.

The now-retired basketball player leads the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation Inc., which raises funds to improve health and education in the DRC. Through the foundation, Mutombo helped build a hospital in Kinshasa, which he considers “one of my biggest accomplishments in my life.”

“I knew that the ball would stop bouncing one day,” he said of his career switch. “Life has to go on.”

On perceptions of a disease that continues to have an impact on Africa, Mutombo said it is important that people have accurate information about HIV/AIDS. “Being HIV-positive does not mean you are sick. You can continue to live your life and fulfill your dream as long as you take care of yourself.” He noted that another former basketball star, Magic Johnson, played pro ball while being HIV-positive.

“HIV/AIDS … continues to be a big challenge for Africa,” Mutombo said. “There are treatments, but education remains key. Like the Old Testament says, people perish because of lack of knowledge. Education will remain the source for us to save our future society.”

On leadership, Mutombo said that leaders “choose to make themselves leaders.” He encouraged his young chatters to “be devoted to your work, have self-discipline, devote yourself to the team and try to succeed.”

“My hope is that the Africa of my ancestors will be totally different than the Africa of my descendants. You will be part of that journey.”

To find out about future chats for young African leaders, tune into the YALI Network on Facebook and Twitter.

Photo credit: U.S. Department of State

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