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NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo on his love for Africa

From Terry Baddoo, CNN
  • Dikembe Mutombo is one of the best shot-blockers in NBA history
  • The retired athlete won Defender of the Year award four times
  • The Congolese superstar is famous for his humanitarian work
  • Mutombo has funded the building of a high-tech hospital in hometown Kinshasa

Every week CNN's African Voices highlights Africa's most engaging personalities, exploring the lives and passions of people who rarely open themselves up to the camera. This week we profile Congolese basketball player Dikembe Mutombo who has used his success to promote worthy causes on and off the continent.

Watch the show on Saturdays at 1130 and 1830 GMT and Sundays at 1700 GMT.

Atlanta, Georgia (CNN) -- Standing at 2.18m tall, basketball legend Dikembe Mutombo hardly goes unnoticed.

From his towering height to his gravely voice, the Congolese superstar is a larger-than-life character, famous for using his gigantic hands to block numerous shots on basketball courts and to extend his humanitarian touch off them.

Throughout his 18-year NBA career, the center forward won the league's defensive player of the year award four times and played in eight All Star games.

But despite all the success and the multi-million contracts that came with it, the retired athlete never forgot the land of his birth or the plight of its people.

"People wonder why I love Africa so much. I say this is where I was born and raised. My roots are in Africa, that's were I developed," Mutombo told CNN from Atlanta, a city where he enjoyed some of the most successful seasons of his illustrious career.

Video: Africa's famous son
Video: Mutombo's star status in Africa
Video: Mutombo's life after basketball

Born in 1966 in what is now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mutombo was one of 10 children in his family. In 1987, he moved to the U.S. after receiving a scholarship to study medicine at Georgetown University in Washington.

But from almost the minute his size-22 shoes set foot on campus, it was impossible for Mutombo not to get noticed -- he was soon approached by the university's basketball coaches asking him to join Georgetown's team.

Having to work hard to learn the game, Mutombo dropped his dream of becoming a doctor and graduated instead with a dual degree in diplomacy and linguistics.

But two decades later -- and after six successful stints at NBA teams that turned him into a multi-millionaire -- he has accomplished a great deal.

Mutombo saw the biggest feat of his charitable work come to fruition in 2007 -- a 300-bed hospital in the outskirts of Congolese capital Kinshasa, much of it paid for with $15 million out of his own pocket.

Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital, which is considered to be the first modern medical facility built in Kinshasa in 40 years, was named after the basketball star's mother, who he says died partly because of the lack of adequate medical care in Congo.

"She was having a mild heart attack and couldn't get to the hospital. My father was trying to get her there but the street was blocked and the hospital was like five to 10 minutes away. By the time they got back she had died," he said.

The powerful center forward began his humanitarian work early on in his NBA career, mainly through the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation he set up in 1997.

"My foundation was created so I can find a way to improve the living conditions of my people in the African continent, not just in Congo," Mutombo said.

"To be a messenger and also be part of the solution that will take place -- to eradicate poverty and all of those diseases in Africa.

"With this great gift that God gave me I am able to be on TV everyday and let people know what's going on in my continent and see who can help.
--Dikembe Mutombo

"With this great gift that God gave me I am able to be on TV everyday and get the message to the American people and let them know what's going on in my continent and see who can help.

"As long as I am still alive I will find a way to keep this message alive and keep going," he added.

But while his compassion and generosity off the basketball court have earned him the admiration of millions, Mutombo's domineering presence under the rim cemented his reputation as one of the game's most feared players.

And it was all perpetuated by his trademark gesture, the "rejection" finger wag.

Flashed in an opponent's face after a successful block, Mutombo's taunting wave became one of the most recognizable highlights in the history of the NBA.

When asked if it was about showmanship or intimidation, Mutombo says its the latter.

"One day I woke up and said that maybe I should wag my finger in the face of people that I am trying to block their shot and it will send a strong message," he says.

"A few times I didn't get a technical foul for it and then I thought 'OK, this can be a Mutombo signature.'"

In April 2009, 42-year-old Mutombo announced his retirement after suffering a left knee injury in a play-off game for the Houston Rockets.

These days, when not dedicating time and money to his foundation, Mutombo uses his celebrity status to advance a series of worthy causes, including United for Children, the United Against AIDS campaign, CARE and the NBA's Basketball Without Borders.

Last May, he received an honorary doctorate by Georgetown for his charitable work and delivered the keynote address to a new set of graduates.

At the heart of all his humanitarian effort lies an old African proverb Mutombo frequently quotes: "When you take the elevator to the top from the bottom, don't forget to send the elevator back down."

"And in my way to sending the elevator back down it was going back home and building a hospital and doing all those things that I do."

Teo Kermeliotis contributed to this report.

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