NBA great, soccer fan Dikembe Mutombo convinced Major League Soccer will be a hit in Atlanta
ATLANTA — Now retired after a stellar NBA career, you'd expect to find Dikembe Mutombo playing some pick-up basketball around Atlanta, where he now lives.
You'd be wrong.
When he has down time on the weekend, the 47-year-old Mutombo, who played four seasons for the Atlanta Hawks during his 18 years in the pros, is on youth soccer fields with his six children.
"My kids play soccer, so every Saturday and Sunday afternoon, you will find me somewhere on the soccer field," Mutombo told MLSsoccer.com on Wednesday at the unveiling of Atlanta as the 22nd MLS team. "We are part of the Northside soccer community. So you always see me there. My kids have been playing soccer since they were two years old. … They're just getting too tall. I know some of them are going to have to stop."
Soccer runs in the Mutombo family. Dikembe says he was a goalkeeper back in his native Democratic Republic of Congo from an early age until he was 19 years old. Like former NBA star Hakeem Olajuwon and LA Lakers guard and Vancouver Whitecaps minority owner Steve Nash, Mutombo credits soccer for some of his basketball success.
"I always say that the reason I've gone to the NBA to become one of the great defensive players to have ever played this game, it has a lot to do with my soccer coordination and my vision of looking at the ball coming from far away and at high speed as a goalie," he said.
So it should have been no surprise he was present at the downtown establishment where MLS commissioner Don Garber awarded a 2017 expansion team to Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank and the city of Atlanta. Mutombo is convinced Atlanta is going to make a great home for MLS.
"Come on!" he exclaimed. "From Bankhead to Buckhead, we're all going to be there to support soccer. We're so excited. It's not just all the kids that live in the Northside and northwest of Atlanta. We have a huge community right now who are second-born-generation of foreigners, and each one of them are playing soccer. So that tells you already."
Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed backed up Mutombo's claims with numbers: "The city of Atlanta and the metropolitan Atlanta region has the second-fastest[-growing] foreign population. So we think we're at the right place at the right time."
"We saw the example of Nigeria against Mexico," Mutombo continued, referring to the March 5 friendly at the Georgia Dome that drew 68,212. "I can't imagine, in the most beautiful stadium in the world, what will happen."
The stadium being constructed by Blank is set to open in 2017 for both MLS and the National Football League. In the meantime, Mutombo will enjoy watching the host country, Brazil, and rooting for the United States at the World Cup — "We're sitting in a tough group right now, but I think we're going to have a great success," he said about the USA's chances in Brazil.
But soccer is clearly on Mutombo's mind often these days; he has already suggested a name for the new Atlanta team.
"We have the Hawks. We have the Falcons," Mutombo thought out loud. "I think they should be called the Black Bears. Yeah, the Black Bears. We've got some of the bears in the mountains here."