Throughout his 18-year NBA career, Dikembe Mutombo was a prolific shot blocker and defensive player—and these days, he brings just as much passion to his humanitarian efforts as both the founder of an organization dedicated to improving life in his native Democratic Republic of Congo and as the NBA's Global Ambassador. We caught up with the seven-foot-two-inch Mutombo, who is in New York for the NBA All-Star Game, taking place February 15 at Madison Square Garden.
Q: What are your duties as the NBA's Global Ambassador?
A: My job is to work with the NBA and explain our game all around the world. It also involves social responsibility work, like building basketball courts, visiting schools, and teaching young people. We want to make sure our communities are safe, and that children have a safe environment where they can grow up and be better people.
Q: And how are you making an impact in New York this week?
A: We are trying to reach more than 1 million young people in New York throughout the NBA season, and as part of All-Star Weekend, we are hosting basketball and fitness clinics in 100 schools across all five boroughs. It’s amazing.
Q: Where in the world has the Global Ambassador role taken you?
A: Everywhere! Last week I was in Hong Kong, Beijing, and Shanghai, and before that I was in London. In four weeks I’ll be in Bangkok. This summer, I’m going to Africa. We are putting a lot of emphasis on the continent of Africa.
Q: Tell me about the humanitarian work you do in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
A: In 2007, I built a $30 million hospital there. In the years since it opened, we have treated more than 120,000 women and children. We are very proud of the service we provide to the poor, especially women and children. We feel like we are saving thousands and thousands of lives by operating in a country where a high percentage of children don’t live to the age of five. We continue to invest and partner with medical institutions and research centers around the globe to make sure we are providing good primary healthcare, and I’m very happy with the results.
Q: Do you travel more or less than when you were in the NBA?
A: I think I travel more now than when I was a basketball player. My wife always says it still feels like I’m playing basketball because I’m never home. But it’s amazing because I’m teaching a great lesson to my children—to care about the world we are living in.
Q: What is your preferred airline and why?
A: I fly Delta. I live in Atlanta, so it’s my home base airline. You can get anywhere around the world. But in general, it’s not easy being a seven-footer on a plane.
Q: With a 22 shoe size, it must not be easy to pack. What kind of luggage do you use?
A: I always have to check my luggage. When I pack my shoes and a few things, my bag is already full and I have no room to put my suits inside because they’re too long. Tumi makes a bag that can fit it.
Q: What is your favorite hotel?
A: The Ritz-Carlton in Central Park is beautiful. I don’t really care about the view. I care more about the room, the bed, where I can be comfy, and feel relaxed. It’s a beautiful hotel, especially the lobby. And at the Omni Berkshire Place on 52nd and Madison, they treat me like a king.
Q: Do you work out on the road?
A: I don’t play basketball anymore, but I work out for two hours at 6:30 in the morning. I do cardio for an hour and lift weights for an hour. I have to stay fit, even though I’m still young. There’s heart disease, and you have to combat those things by staying healthy.
Q: What is the biggest travel mishap you've experienced?
A: Leaving my cell phone and computer on a plane in Paris—I got all the way past security before I realized it. They told me I couldn’t go back, so I had to ask at baggage claim if anyone could find it. They didn’t, so for a week in Europe I couldn’t be in touch with anyone in America.
Q: Do you miss being on the court?
A: No, I don’t miss it. I enjoyed my career, and had so much fun. But I enjoy spending time with my children and my family. I didn’t get to see them much when I was playing, and now I get to see them whenever I want.
Q: What’s your ideal vacation spot?
A: My wife and I go everywhere—to the Caribbean, Africa, Europe, sometimes Asia. We like to show our kids the world. But there’s no place like home in the Congo, when I can spend time with my brothers, sisters, and cousins. I don’t see my family much, so if I can see them I’m happy.
Brooke Porter Katz is an Associate Editor at Travel + Leisure. Follow her on Twitter at @brookeporter1.