KINSHASA (Reuters) - When Dikembe Mutombo’s brother first brought him to the Kauka sports club in this working class neighborhood of Kinshasa in the early 1980s to play basketball, the gangly teenager struck few as a superstar in the making.
“It was his second or third day here and the team was doing a jumping exercise, like this,” laughed Albert Dinabena, the former equipment manager, mimicking a frog hopping across the court. “And he fell square on his chin! It left a huge gash!”
Within a few years, Mutombo was off to Georgetown University in the United States, where he became one of the nation’s top collegiate players.
After being selected fourth in the 1991 NBA draft, Mutombo would be named to the all-star team eight times. He emerged as a fixture of American popular culture for his trademark finger-wag after blocked shots, of which he registered the second-most in league history.
Mutombo retired in 2009 after 18 professional seasons but he received his highest honor on Monday when he was named to the Hall of Fame.
In Kauka, in the shadows of the decaying stadium where Muhammad Ali and George Foreman fought the “Rumble in the Jungle” in 1974, people recalled toughness as one quality that helped elevate Mutombo to international celebrity.
After busting open his chin, Mutombo went for stitches, Dinabena said, pausing for effect before adding: “Without anaesthesia!”
His more than 7 foot frame marked him out. At the end of training, it was Mutombo’s job to stow the ball for safekeeping atop a corrugated roof three metres off the ground that only he could reach.
With Mutombo guarding the rim, Kauka racked up a series of national championships in the former Zaire - renamed Democratic Republic of Congo after the fall of autocratic leader Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997.
In this troubled central African country, Mutombo has earned a reputation as a celebrated philanthropist.
In 2007, Mutombo’s foundation opened the $30 million Biamba Marie Mutombo hospital, named after his mother, in Kinshasa’s Masina neighborhood. A shiny modern facility that offers subsidised care to residents, it has treated more than 100,000 people.
Shortly after his retirement in 2009, Mutombo was appointed the NBA’s first global ambassador in recognition of his years of charitable efforts around the world. One newspaper in his adopted United States anointed him “The Giver.”
But Mutombo’s activities have not been without blemishes. In 2011, a U.N. panel of experts detailed Mutombo’s participation in an apparent botched gold smuggling deal, worth $10 million, involving a Congolese warlord, Bosco Ntaganda.
In Kauka, Mutombo elicits mixed emotions, as locals’ pride mixes with regret at his not having given more to the community.
Residents say Mutombo visited Kauka just once since leaving in 1987: in 1995, flanked by bodyguards, he came bearing new sports shoes for the players.
They say they wish he would invest in the club, whose playing surface these days is cracked and uneven. Trash collects in the unkempt grass around the court.
“If he’s something today, it’s because of this court,” said coach Ali Pombo, pointing to Mutombo’s support for basketball in South Africa. “Why not do that here in Congo?”
Mutombo left Congo before the wars of the 1990s, which left millions dead. Residents say back then local basketball teams were backed by sponsorship deals.
Dinabena said life has become too hard for Congolese players to thrive. “They aren’t financed. It’s difficult to get transport,” he said. “They come to training and they haven’t even had a Coca Cola.”
Editing by Daniel Flynn