The career-ending injury to Dikembe Mutombo is a terrible shame, but I’ve loved reading all the tributes to a man whose life was so much bigger than the game we knew him for. Chad Ford traveled to South Africa with Mutombo and wrote about the life-changing experience here. Dr. Ford was nice enough to let Henry Abbott reprint a letter he sent to Mutombo upon hearing of his injury and subsequent retirement:
I filed that story, which is my favorite I’ve ever written. I was overwhelmed by the response to it. People offered to help Mama Jackey. Donations came flowing in. ESPN featured the story on the front page of the site. It was my first inkling that sports truly can make a difference in the lives of others.
Within months I was looking for a job teaching conflict resolution program at a university, preparing to travel to Israel to write about sports and conflict resolution there, and thinking everyday about Mutombo and what I saw him do in Africa. In 2005, I left ESPN on a full-time basis to run the McKay Center for Intercultural Understanding in Hawaii. I also began reporting about and ultimately consulting and working with PeacePlayers International in the Middle East — an organization that has shown the power of sports to bring enemies together.
I can trace almost all of it back to that day in Soweto. To those that say basketball can’t make a difference in people’s lives, I wish they could meet Dikembe. Not only has he changed the lives of tens of thousands in Africa, but he made a difference in my life that I’ll never forget.
Great stuff from Dikembe and Chad Ford. In Mutombo’s honor, here are two great clips: