Dikembe Mutombo and Sonny in Washington

For a man who’s traveled all over the world, Dikembe Mutombo sounds a bit surprised about his first visit to South Sudan, which borders his homeland in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Speaking by phone from Juba, the capital of Africa’s newest country, Dikembe tells me South Sudan is “his next door neighbor and it’s very strange” that he’s finally made it to the fledgling nation.

With the backing of the U.S. government and the National Basketball Association, Mutombo and another longtime NBA player, Sam Perkins, traveled to Juba as

Sam Perkins

“sports envoys.”

Mutombo and Perkins have been leading basketball clinics for South Sudanese youth, as well as teaching them basic life skills. “I think they learn a lot of lessons, just by seeing our presence here,” says Mutombo. “You have two NBA players who competed in the league for more than 35 seasons combined. We’ve been talking with them about not just basketball, but also education, peace and reconciliation and staying away from deadly diseases like AIDS.”

Mutombo has been described as perhaps the NBA’s greatest ever humanitarian. He’s been an international sports ambassador in the fight against AIDS, polio and malaria in Africa, and in 2007, he opened the 300-bed Biamba Marie Mutombo hospital in his birthplace of Kinshasa, a hospital named after his late mother.

“When you take the elevator to the top,” says Dikembe Mutombo, “please don’t forget to send it down, so that someone else can take it to the top.” Mutombo’s trip this week to South Sudan is proof again he’ll continue to send that elevator down to lift up the less fortunate.