Basketball legend Dikembe Mutombo was in the city as part of an NBA Cares initiative

Dikembe Mutombo's daughter Carrie has a leaning towards basketball. Mutombo keeps dinning one thought into her head — “You can choose any path. But, before that, you must have a solid education.” Mutombo's parents had repeated the same idea to him and his nine siblings. And, the 43-year-old believes the advice holds good for everyone. Even, for the child of an all-time NBA great.

When Mutombo left Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) in the late 1980s for college education in the U.S., he wanted to “study, study and study”. Despite his towering height, Mutombo did not feel an urge to stray towards the basketball courts at Geogetown University (Washington DC), where he took up a diplomacy programme on a USAID scholarship. But when you are 7'2”, you cannot hope to hide from the basketball coach for long. “It was actually the principal, Father Healey who ordered me towards the basketball courts,” says Mutombo.

In the first few matches, he was slightly better off than a spectator. His big break came in a mid-of-the-season game, when a teammate was forced to warm the bench due to a foul. The Georgetown Hoyas coach John Thompson (who became a father figure) told Mutombo, “Go save us!” Mutombo had his first extensive playing time (36 minutes) and he seized the opportunity. He managed twelve blocked shots — and a long-standing team record took a tumble.

Mutombo was so effective as a shot blocker and defensive player that Thompson encouraged him in that role. When he broke into the NBA league and started playing for Denver Nuggets in 1991, he would pass the ball even when he was within striking range of the opponents' basket. Mystified, his teammates would ask him why he avoided having a go at the basket. Before long, he started thwacking the ball into the basket.

But Mutombo has secured an unassailable position among NBA greats on the strength of his shot-blocking record. Only Hakeem Olajuwon, one of Mutombo's idols, has managed more shot blocks. Before he played his last game for Houston Rockets this year, he was tempted to linger on for a while and try to surpass Olajuwon's record. Resisting the temptation became easy when he thought of the time he could spend with his three children (one daughter and two sons) and all the charity work he could undertake.

From being the youth emissary for the United Nations Development Programme to building a hospital ( named after his mother) in Kinshasa and to adopting four children and seeing them through college, Mutombo is generous with his time and money. The Dikembe Mutombo Foundation is committed to the goals of education for all and quality healthcare for the underprivileged, especially women and children. He is also associated with with NBA Cares, the league's social responsibility wing. “While discharging my duty as ambassador of such organisations, my training in diplomacy comes in handy.”

During his term at Georgetown University, he enrolled for many foreign language courses, in the hope of becoming a diplomat. His fluency in English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and five African languages means he is never short of a compassionate word for the broken-hearted.