If you Google “Patrick Mutombo” you’ll easily come across his professional accolades and athletic accomplishments: NBA-D league player, an overseas professional phenom in Italy & Greece, All-American college basketball player, and an assistant coach for the Austin Spurs (NBA D-League). You may even read about his newest move, joining the Toronto Raptors, as an assistant coach, during the 2016/17 NBA season. However, what the news stories may not cover is his backstory. What it actually took to get him where he is today and the intrinsic values, beliefs, and life lessons that helped him along the way.
Mutombo, not to be confused with his cousin Dikembe Mutombo, was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1980. His father worked three jobs and provided steadily for the family and in Patrick’s words, “we weren’t rich, but we would eat every day.” As the only son in a house of five daughters, Patrick was raised to care for his family in his father’s absence. His responsibility as a protector and provider was so deeply ingrained that when his father left, ahead of the family, to work and study in Belgium, Patrick immediately took up the mantle of “man of the house.” However, at ten years of age, there was no way he could have known what to expect from what should have been a temporary separation.
The 1990s welcomed some of the most violent and chaotic times in the history of the Congo. As a matter of fact, if you follow the news as of late, then you know that the biggest fear many officials have is that the ethnic violence occurring in
the southeastern region of the Democratic Republic of Congo may reach the levels of the 90s where 5 million people were killed between 1996 and 2003 alone. The political unrest in the Congo during the 90’s affected everyone everywhere, and governments and companies soon stopped honoring their agreements. As a result, Mutombo’s father’s pay at home and abroad was cut overnight, and with no income, his father had to make due and figure out how to survive in Belgium. Meanwhile, Patrick had to make due and figure out how to take care of the family back home. He was 10.
From eating daily to collecting pig manure to till the garden, Patrick can remember boiling the meager vegetables his garden produced and then splitting the gains to feed his sisters and mother – the oldest always ate less so that the youngest could get their fill. He recalls spending his days at the market trying to sell the bread that his mother made and then hopefully spending everything to bring home the family’s one meal of the day. As a former professional basketball player and current NBA coach, he now sits in awe and recounts stories of he and sisters getting kicked out of school for failure to pay tuition. He is humbled when describing a friend’s dad paying their tuition after finding out about their situation, and he speaks in amazement when talking about running through that same school looking for his sisters when soldiers showed up and began shooting in the air. “There was no ‘calmly walk out of your classroom and go here,’” he states as if just now realizing the weight of that situation and the increasing violence that would define an era.
Three years later, the family was finally able to escape and join their father in Belgium. It was here that a gangly pre-teen, growing up in the ghettos of Brussels, first learned to play basketball. It was here that a spark was lit and dreams of playing in places like America took shape. It was also here where his coach said, “You move like a spider, and you’re bony. They will eat you alive in America!”
If there was one thing that Mutombo’s adolescence taught him it was perseverance. He says that his time in the Congo “forged my personality, taught me to lead, to be selfless and to sacrifice.” As such, one coach’s disregard of his dreams was not going to stop him. He began practicing, getting bigger, getting better and reaching out to people who could help him. At 18, he was a force on the court and caught the eye of recruiters who invited him to play in college-level exhibitions in the U.S. These opportunities brought, even more, opportunities, and at 19 years old he accepted a full ride scholarship to Metro State College in Denver, Colorado.
Though he was mocked for his inability to speak the language or understand the culture, he found a home amongst teammates and used his time in Colorado to further his dreams. Eventually, he would go on to play in Italy and Greece and then make his way back to Colorado to join the Nuggets coaching staff. He has built a comfortable life for his family, but when asked: “If it weren’t for basketball where would you be?” His voice lowers, and he can only say, “I don’t know. I don’t know.” Breaking from his reverie he continues, “but I’m thankful for the gift that was given. Basketball is a tool that God gave me to open many doors. It gave me a voice in the world.”
Today, Patrick Mutombo coaches a lot of players and in his words, he “sees a lot of society reflected in the players we [the staff] coach.” But he knows that everything comes down to drive, purpose, and hunger. “Regardless of your background, if you realize that you are here for a reason and the gifts you’ve been given are for a purpose, then you become focused.” He says that there are still opportunities to teach and forge character in players without duplicating how he acquired it and that the key is to coach hard and drive home one thing: “I’m on earth to do something, and I have a purpose.”