He may have blocked 3,289 shots during an NBA covering nearly two decades, but not one of those rejections proved as expensive to Dikembe Mutombo as one in his personal life.
Dikembe Mutombo had an impressive career
Dikembe Mutombo played 18 seasons in the NBA, where he used his 7-foot-2 frame to establish himself as one of the great shot-blockers in basketball history and was selected the league’s Defensive Player of the Year four times from 1995 to 2001. His 3,289 blocks rank behind only Hakeem Olajuwon (3,820).
Mutombo also averaged 10.8 or more rebounds and 10.0 points a game in each of his first 11 seasons in the NBA, helping him finish his career averaging a double-double. Mutombo, who started in the league with the Denver Nuggets in 1991, retired in 2009 and was inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.
One aspect of his career that is sometimes overlooked is the amount of humanitarian work he did while still active, beginning with the formation of a foundation bearing his name in 1997. His work, particularly efforts to fight disease and improve conditions in his native Democratic Republic of Congo, helped Mutombo earn the NBA’s J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award twice and make him a recipient of the President’s Service Award, the top American honor recognizing volunteer work.
A long journey to a prosperous life
The formative years of Dikembe Mutombo’s life were spent in his native country. The eight-time NBA All-Star, now 53, grew up in a family of 10 children and did not arrive in the United States until the age of 21.
Mutombo spoke very little English when he arrived at Georgetown University on an academic scholarship in 1987 with the intention of becoming a doctor. After spending his freshman year improving his language skills and getting acclimated to living in the United States, Mutombo joined the basketball team and went on to a solid career alongside Alonzo Mourning, another future NBA star.
He averaged 15.2 points 12.2 rebounds in his final NCAA season before graduating with degrees in linguistics and diplomacy.
His Georgetown career and early years as a professional basketball player required rapid adjustment for Mutombo, who was thrown into new experiences on a near-daily basis. It meant making new friends and heeding Hoyas coach John Thompson’s warnings about the perils of intertwining personal and business lives. Mutombo’s quote from 1995 would prove telling:
“People who I have met since I joined the NBA … I have doubts. People try to take advantage of you.”
Why Dikembe Mutombo called off his wedding
Dikembe Mutombo was less than two weeks away from walking down the aisle to marry Georgetown med school student Michelle Roberts on his 28th birthday in 1994 when he asked her to sign a 23-page prenuptial agreement. Mutombo had made a little more than $10 million four years into his NBA career — his final total reached $143 million — and had lucrative years in front of him, prompting friends to advise the basketball star to protect himself in the event the marriage didn’t work out.
Raised in a culture in which successful children are expected to share their wealth with parents and siblings, Mutombo wanted assurances that his blood relatives would be the primary beneficiaries upon his death. He wrote in a figure for a flat financial settlement rather than a percentage of his earnings if the marriage ended in divorce.
Roberts was adamant about not wanting to sign the prenuptial agreement and their discussions came down to the day before the scheduled ceremony. When she would not relent, Mutombo called off the engagement even though his family had already arrived from Africa. The decision was so last-minute that not everyone received word and Denver Nuggets teammate Bryant Stith showed up at church after having cut his own honeymoon short.
By the time the bills came in for the ceremony, a reception for 500 people, and travel and accommodations, calling off the wedding was a $250,000 rejection on the part of Dikembe Mutombo.