Zaire women get helping hand

The Cincinnati Enquirer

ATLANTA - Dikembe Mutombo has kept his promise. And then some.

The NBA star had vowed to bankroll Zaire's women's basketball team if it could qualify for the Olympic Games, but he had no idea of all that would entail. Basketball's most basic necessities remain luxury items in the heart of Africa.

For a little while there, Mutombo had nearly forgotten how far he had journeyed from his native land.

''It was a shame you guys didn't see the sort of uniforms they had for practice at the beginning,'' the Atlanta Hawks' new $78 million center told reporters Thursday afternoon at the Georgia Dome. ''I just couldn't believe it. Some of the shoes the girls have been playing with for two years.

''I said, 'No. In NBA, I changed 120 pair a year. So I can't let you girls from my country go through in that tough a condition.' I went downtown and got them shoes the following day; shoes, uniforms, everything new. I told them to burn everything they brought with them.''

Zaire is a nation abundant in natural resources and strapped for athletic equipment. There is not a single indoor court in the whole country, and basketballs are more precious than pearls.

''Basketballs cost $100 in Zaire,'' said Mongamaluku Mozingo, the Zaire women's coach. ''It's hard to get $100. It's two months salary.''

Against these severe economic obstacles, Zaire emerged from the African Zone qualifier to win a spot in the Summer Games and force Mutombo to honor his pledge. He paid the entire team's airfare to Atlanta, and provided its outfits for the Opening Ceremony. What he should have done, in retrospect, was round up some ringers.

U.S. 107, Zaire 47

Unaccustomed to up-tempo basketball, and reluctant to pass the ball in search of better shots, the Zairian women have lost all three of their games in the Olympic tournament, by a total of 122 points. They were thumped Thursday by Tara VanDerveer's relentless Americans, 107-47, before a Georgia Dome crowd of 31,230, the largest ever to see a women's basketball game.

Educational experiences start to lose their charm when a team gets so severely schooled.

''In the locker room, I saw some of the girls with their heads down,'' Mutombo said afterward. ''It was like a rock was tied to their heads, so they could not get up any more. I said, 'Look, you still have four more games to play and you can win maybe two of them. Keep your heads up, go out and play the game and enjoy yourself. Be happy for making the Olympics and do not be sad if you don't win the gold or lose the game.' ''

During the game, Mutombo sat behind a basket, shouting encouragement and making suggestions. His efforts produced mixed results.

''I was trying to scream a little bit: 'Play hard. Play hard.' But one of the girls took it the wrong way. She thought I said, 'Hit them hard.' I said, 'No, no, no, no. That's not what I said. Be tough. Be physical.' ''

A helping hand

There is still so much to learn. Mozingo, who was Mutombo's first coach, continues to pick up the finer points. He has attended coaching clinics in the United States, including one organized by Indiana's Bobby Knight.

''This,'' he said, ''was a magical moment for me.''

Mozingo believes he has more magical moments in store; that Zaire's basketball players are closer to being competitive than their Olympic scores would indicate.

''It is not an issue of years,'' he said. ''We have the physical potential. We have excellent players. The players are not as mediocre as players of other countries. We lack financial potential. We lack financial means.

''We trained for two months. If we could train for a whole year, perhaps train with you, learn your techniques, within a year or two we'd be much improved. But we would also need financial means.''

Mutombo has gladly spread some of his enormous wealth to help the team, and even some of Zaire's competitors have contributed to the cause.

''We'll ask them what their sizes are and then we give them stuff,'' said U.S. center Lisa Leslie. ''But mostly what we can give them is sportsmanship. We knock them down and help them up.''

Tim Sullivan is an Enquirer columnist.

Published July 26, 1996.