By JOE SCALZO | CRAINS
When Dikembe Mutombo was growing up in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), basketball courts were about as common as ski lodges.
The closest basketball court to his house was 90 minutes away… by bus.
“I tell my kids, ‘You’re lucky. You wake up and walk to school five minutes away and there are 10 basketball courts on campus,’” said Mutombo, an 18-year NBA veteran and a member of Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall Inducted fame in 2015.
“Even now the (African) children take the bus, they get stuck in traffic, they train for an hour or two and get on the bus for an hour and a half to get home. Hopefully mom did that and cooked something, but sometimes mom didn’t cook because they didn’t have money for food.
“It’s just a fight.”
One of 10 children in his family, Mutombo grew up competing in soccer and martial arts before taking up basketball at the age of 16, according to the Doctor. His rare height (7ft 2) and athleticism caught the attention of Georgetown coach John Thompson, who made him an all-conference player for the Hoyas and a future first-round draft pick for the Denver Nuggets.
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The eight-time NBA All-Star wants to create similar opportunities for students in Africa, which is why he’s part of an investment group that recently formed a strategic partnership with the Spire Institute and Academy. The group will work with Spire to attract and retain international talent and expand the academy’s global reach, particularly in Africa.
“My business partner informed me that there is a massive sports complex just outside of Cleveland, Ohio and that we should look it up,” said Mutombo, who recently spoke to Crain’s Cleveland Business by Zoom. “We looked at it and I said, ‘I’ve traveled the world and I’ve never seen anything like it. I’d really like to be a part of it.’”
Mutombo’s investment fits in with the NBA’s recent efforts to expand the game in Africa. NBA Commissioner Adam Silver spoke about this initiative at last month’s NBA All-Star Technology Summit — former President Barack Obama was part of the Zoom panel — noting that 10% of the league’s current players are either African-born were or have a parent who is African was born in Africa. The 54 countries in Africa have a total population (1.3 billion) that rivals China, and about 50% of this population is under 20 years old
“It’s really important for us to increase the number of young people playing the game,” said Victor Williams, CEO of NBA Africa, whose organization plans to build 1,000 courts on the continent. “To do that, we need to give them great infrastructure. We want every kid in Africa to be jumping the ball instead of kicking the ball.”
Mutombo visited Spire while he was in town for the All-Star Game in February and plans to be back for a while in June to host basketball camp.
“Spire is not just a place to put my money and that’s all and I’m not coming back,” Mutombo said. “I’m not like that. I just love this place.”
Managing Partner Jonathan Ehrenfeld said Spire is pursuing partnership opportunities with the NBA and hopes to secure scholarship funding and a presence with NBA Africa. The Mutombo-Spire partnership has yet to produce any full-time students, but Mutombo said they hope to have a few enrolled before September.
“We’re doing a lot behind the scenes right now,” Mutombo said. “We’re trying to raise awareness of this place, increase visibility and do more tournaments for basketball, volleyball, soccer, football – whatever they can offer. As the campus continues to grow and all the new hotels are coming, there is more to work on. We’re reaching out to all of our partners across sports to let them know there’s a great place to come to in North America.”
Part of the draw, Ehrenfeld said, is the fact that Spire offers more than just athletics. Designed to prepare students for life beyond the sport and the field, it offers a “holistic approach” to academics and life development with a strong focus on college and career placement.
“We want to expand our majors beyond athletics into industries like medicine, marketing, agriculture, journalism, and many others so students can redouble their sport and passion for a lifelong impact,” Ehrenfeld said.
Mutombo shares this goal. In addition to his basketball success, he graduated from Georgetown with a bachelor’s degree in linguistics and diplomacy, served as a summer intern in Congress and the World Bank, and speaks nine languages. He founded the Dikembe Motumbo Foundation in the Democratic Republic of the Congo in 1997 and received the Sager Strong Award for his humanitarian work in 2018.
He has spent his life helping others and sees the Spire partnership as an extension of that.
“I want to give kids the tools to be successful in life,” he said. “I think Spire has that platform. When it comes to the venue, the training, the classes, the setting and being close to the water – it doesn’t get any better than this. The place is very peaceful, very quiet, it gives you the opportunity to rest, work on your game, talk to the coaches and travel.
“They compete, they go to classes, they live normal lives and there’s no better place because there’s no place like this in America. I wish I had gone to a school like that.”