Pro Basketball's Mutombo Helps Build Congo Hospital NPR's Farai Chideya talks with Houston Rockets player Dikembe Mutombo about financing a hospital in his home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo.  

Pro Basketball's Mutombo Helps Build Congo Hospital

Pro Basketball's Mutombo Helps Build Congo Hospital

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NPR's Farai Chideya talks with Houston Rockets player Dikembe Mutombo about financing a hospital in his home country, the Democratic Republic of Congo.  

ED GORDON, host:

I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS AND NOTES.

NBA star Dikembe Mutombo didn't have hoop dreams growing up. He wanted to be a doctor, but basketball came calling in college.

Now the Houston Rockets center and philanthropist is making a name for himself in the health world by opening a new hospital in his native country, Congo. NPR's Farai's Chideya spoke with Mutombo about his love for the game and his country.

Mr. DIKEMBE MUTOMBO: (Houston Rockets, NBA): I came from the Republic Democratic of Congo in Africa. I was born in the city of Kinshasa, the capital city. That's where I was raised in the house of ten children, with my mom and my dad, with cousin, uncles.

My dad, he worked for the government, making about $37 a month and trying to do the best he can for his children to have a better education. Every Saturday when my dad used to put us in the living room and having a conversation with him, because that was his only day off, he was relaxing with his kids.

And I ask him, my dad asking me what I want to do. And I remember I was in the third grade. I told my dad that I want to become a doctor. And that the story about where I am today.

CHIDEYA: Of course, you have gone on to be a great basketball player. You're seven-foot-two. People would not necessarily think of you as having aspirations to work in medicine, but now you're traveling back to your homeland to dedicate and open a clinic named after your mother. Tell us a little bit about that.

Mr. MUTOMBO: Yes. The civil unrest came in, and my mom passed away in some of the circumstances. And I was, of course, trying to reflect more on my mom's death and trying to see how can we do something that'll be related to the healthcare system where we can find a way to save a thousand lives.

I reached the conclusion that building a hospital was the right thing, and that would serve not just my generation, for generation to come. And I went to talk to my cousin who's a cardiovascular surgeon. He told me that I was crazy trying to do something like this. If I want to do it, he's going to help me. But I have to remember that it's going to take a lot of energy and a lot of time for me to do it, to accomplish it.

CHIDEYA: I understand you donated about $15 million.

Mr. MUTOMBO: Fifteen million dollars and...

CHIDEYA: That's quite substantial.

Mr. MUTOMBO: I try to do my best. I know I'm very, very rich, but I'm glad that I was blessed to be able to do something like this. And then now we see the hospital is opening.

CHIDEYA: One of the things that we recently did a series on was AIDS. How is the Congo dealing with the issue of AIDS?

Mr. MUTOMBO: They have destroyed the fabric of society. We already lost more than 20 million people just in the infection. And we really lost thousands of thousands people with tuberculosis. We lost million, million people with malaria. And you go home, Africa already, you have more than 40 million children in African continent who are left orphans because they've lost their loved ones, their mom or their dad, from this epidemic.

CHIDEYA: I couldn't help but notice that you had seven children, four of whom are close relatives' children that you've adopted. Has any of that been because of deaths in your family?

Mr. MUTOMBO: Yes. One of my brothers just died recently. He went out the night before. Came out, he was just sitting in a couch. And then they had the kids with us, like, daddy was not moving. You know, it just came in the morning and we was eating breakfast and he laying in the couch. And then you have my oldest one who died from lung cancer from just smoking. It's a big chaos right now in the continent of Africa. And I'm glad that I'm part of the solution.

CHIDEYA: Yeah. It seems as if you really have made a personal commitment as well as this philanthropic commitment, you know, by taking people into your home and then also starting this project. Let me ask you what kind of support you've gotten from your colleagues in the NBA.

Mr. MUTOMBO: Oh, the support has been great. I have a lot of guys who have donated a lot of money, which has been good. At the beginning, it was a little bit tough. It was not easy to sell the project to so many people who don't have so much knowledge of the African continent or a better understanding of the continent.

But until now, I think after staying in the game for so long, guys start getting the picture really what is happening in Africa.

CHIDEYA: Speaking of staying in the game for so long. You have been a key player on several different teams in the NBA. How much longer do you think you're going to keep up your athletic career? I mean do you feel with all of these other things that you're working on that you still have a passion for the game and you're going to stay in it as long as you can?

Mr. MUTOMBO: I still have a little bit of passion. I still love the game. But the desire have kind of switched a little bit. You know, I think I've been more fascinated with the death toll on African continent, and I see that someone like me in the private sector who can take the initiative. It's really a big lesson for all of us to learn that we can't left all of the problem to be solved by a large organization.

But even little people, when they come together, they can make a big difference as well.

CHIDEYA: Dikembe Mutombo, thank you so much.

Mr. MUTOMBO: It's my pleasure.

GORDON: That was NBA star and humanitarian Dikembe Mutombo with NPR's Farai Chideya.

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