Basketball Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo, a fearsome 7-foot-2 center in his playing days, said Tuesday he was moved to tears at the sight of Jerusalem’s ancient walls.
Mutombo, who hails from a devout Christian community in Congo, described his first visit to the holy city as an emotional experience. He said he thought about his parents, who died before they could see the place they had spent their lives reading about in the Bible.
“My parents might be gone, but they instilled in me the dream of coming here, and I’ve made it,” he said. “I can’t believe I’m really here.”
Mutombo, an eight-time NBA All-Star who played for six teams, was in town for the inauguration of a new sports center, where he flashed his signature finger-wag and showed off his trademark shot-blocking skills at a clinic in front of a mixed crowd of excited Jewish, Christian and Muslim children.
The center, located at the city’s YMCA and sponsored by Canadian-Israeli philanthropist and sports enthusiast Sylvan Adams, calls itself an “an oasis of coexistence” in the diverse city, catering to Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Mutombo said that coming from a conflict-ridden country convinced him of the salutary power of sport, and allowed him relate to politically troubled places.
“Who doesn’t know about all the wars that have taken place here?” he said. “But on the court you don’t talk about whose skin is darker, which ethnicity group you come from, which language you speak. You just play the game.”
In the decade since his retirement, Mutombo has invested millions in philanthropic causes in his native country and abroad. He said he feels at home in his new role as a humanitarian ambassador, especially since the NBA’s golden days of defense are long gone.
“All the young kids these days shoot hoops like they’re shooting guns,” he said. “I wouldn’t have lasted more than a year.”
During the clinic, Mutombo praised young players’ free throws and blocked shots with the flick of his wrist. His booming voice and basso laugh engaged everyone in range.
Emily Polanski, 11, the only girl on the court, said although it’s hard to play alone with so many boys, she dreams of competing one day in the WNBA, and takes Mutombo as an example of how to prevail over obstacles.
“Boy or girl, when you’re playing, it shouldn’t matter,” she said, looking up at the towering Mutombo.