Dikembe Mutombo puts on his hard hat in Ennerdale township. Photo: Sonny Young/VOA

Whether he’s helping build a home or a hospital, Dikembe Mutombo isn’t afraid to “get his hands dirty,” as he said after putting on his hard hat and picking up a steel trowel in Ennerdale township in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The 52-year-old Hall of Fame basketball player joined a group of 250 NBA and WNBA players, coaches, legends, guests and executives who volunteered to help build 10 homes in Ennerdale.

The service project was sponsored by NBA Cares – the National Basketball Association’s global social responsibility program – and Habitat for Humanity South Africa, in partnership with the National Basketball Players Association.

The home Mutombo worked on belongs to Grace Shilenge, who repeatedly said, “I’m so happy, I’m so happy,” to the workers, volunteers and media in her township.

Grace Shilenge
Photo: Gift Khosa/MSL Group

Grace was also happy to meet Dikembe, although she had no idea who the 7’2″ (2.18 meters) tall Mutombo was or what he once did on the basketball court. “Yes, he’s a big man,” said Grace.

For his part, after being introduced to Grace, Mutombo smiled and said, “Grace, that’s a nice name.”

You might say Dikembe Mutombo has shown a lot of grace in his humanitarian work over the years.

The Congolese giant has also helped build bridges between people and cultures and improved the lives of many African children and adults through his efforts to fight polio and malaria.

Perhaps his greatest humanitarian achievement, though, was seeing the completion of the 300-bed Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital and Research Center near his birthplace of Kinshasa.

Sonny and Dikembe

The hospital was named after his late mother, and with a 70-bed maternity area and what’s described as a state-of-the-art neonatal unit, the medical facility now helps new mothers.

I remember watching Dikembe Mutombo play basketball for Georgetown University 30 years ago, and I also remember his Hall of Fame achievements in the NBA.

But I think I’ll remember Dikembe most for what he’s done off the court.