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The Center of Two Worlds

My people perishfor lack of knowledge," says Dikembe Mutombo, paraphrasing the OldTestament, from whose pages he seems to have sprung, like some prophet from apop-up Bible.

His people perishfor our lack of knowledge. Surely, we'd help the inhabitants of his nativeCongo if we knew that a man's life expectancy there is 42 years and shrinking,that half the population of sub-Saharan Africa is now younger than 15, that 35million African children have been orphaned by AIDS.

One in five kidsin sub-Saharan Africa never celebrates a fifth birthday, and for those who do,life is a trial from Day One. Two years ago, while visiting a maternity ward inCongo, Mutombo says he met 10 new mothers whose babies were not beingdischarged by the hospital until the women could pay their bills, each of whichwas $25. Though his homeland has witnessed manifold horrors, Mutombo had neverseen anything quite so wretched as this--infants treated as collateral.

He gave thehospital $250, a fraction of his hourly wage in the NBA, where he's spent thelast 15 years as a hardwood Robin Hood, taking from the rich, giving to thepoor. "God has blessed me with a fortune," says the 40-year-old backupcenter for the Houston Rockets. "I love this country. It is a blessedcountry--especially for those of us who came here, were given an education andblessed to play basketball. One lesson my mother taught me was, The more yougive, the more blessings you receive."

Biamba MarieMutombo sold Cokes at the 20th of May Stadium in the Congolese capital ofKinshasa, where Muhammad Ali and George Foreman fought the Rumble in the Jungleon Oct. 30, 1974. "All I know of the fight is that she made a lot of moneythat night," says Mutombo, who was eight at the time. It was his firstexperience with professional sports, and for his family it was a trickle-downagent for good.

And so Mutombo hasbeen dreaming of this Saturday in Kinshasa, when he was supposed to cut aribbon to open the $29 million Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital, honoring thewoman who died of a stroke in 1998. Mutombo personally contributed $15 millionto the project. He says that 55% of the patients will arrive on foot.

Ancient waysprevail in Congo, still visited by plagues--among them malaria, measles,tuberculosis, cholera and AIDS. Mutombo is a dual citizen of opposite worlds:the conspicuous wealth of the NBA and the abject poverty of Congo. This wasthrown into starkest relief several years ago, when Mutombo traveled to Congobriefly, to visit his mother's grave. It was the only time he has gone therewithout taking antimalarial medication. "I figured I am big and strong, Icannot be killed by a mosquito," says Mutombo, who was playing for theHawks at the time. It wasn't until he returned to the U.S. that the diseasefelled him like a 7'2" tree. Two hours after a game against the Celtics,Mutombo collapsed in his Boston hotel room.

Malaria can befatal in two days, but Mutombo was saved by American health care. As he says ofthe African epidemics, "These are diseases of the poor."

Poverty is aterminal affliction in Africa, which is rapidly becoming a continent ofchildren. "Go downtown in Kinshasa," says Mutombo. "There arethousands of street children, at every stoplight, good kids begging for foodbecause their parents died of malaria. In Rwanda, Sudan, Sierra Leone andLiberia, these children carry guns on the street, 10- and 11-year-oldsoldiers."

Last week, shortlyafter Congo's first multiparty elections in 46 years, fighting in Kinshasakilled 31 people, forcing Mutombo to postpone the opening of the hospital."The safety of all participants is my primary concern," he says.

Listen to hisstory long enough, told in his weary rasp, and Mutombo might sound like aprophet of doom, a Hoarse Man of the Apocalypse. But he's the opposite, aharbinger of hope. In professional sports, putting your money where your mouthis usually means getting gold teeth, but Mutombo has received hundreds ofthousands of dollars from Patrick Ewing, Juwan Howard, Tracy McGrady, AlonzoMourning, among many others. "Even Yao," he says, "who comes from acountry of a billion people, is helping mine."

Those of us whodon't make millions can help too. Mutombo prays that 100,000 people will call1-877-FUND-DMF and pledge at least $10 a month for one year to cover thehospital's operating expenses. In return, those people will get somethingpriceless--the sense "that you're making a difference," says Mutombo."You can feel that joy."

It isn't enough tobe heartbroken for 35 million orphans. As Gandhi said, "Be the change youwant to see in the world."

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In his weary rasp, Mutombo speaks of life as a dualcitizen of opposite worlds: the conspicuous wealth of the NBA and the abjectpoverty of Congo.