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When he heard that Dikembe Mutombo's playing days were over, ESPN's Chad Ford cried, and wrote the big man an e-mail. It turns out that Ford's is one of the many lives Mutombo has forever enriched with his enormous heart.
As background, you really should read the tremendous story about the time Ford and Mutombo spent together in South Africa.
After some arm-twisting, Ford agreed to let me republish his e-mail. Here it is:
I don't know if you remember me. I was the ESPN.com reporter who traveled with you to the first Africa 100 camp in South Africa. I wrote a story about traveling to Mama Jackey's and the impact you had on the children and me. However, I never told you the full story. Watching you go down last night had a powerful effect on me. I wept and my children asked me why ... this is the story that I told them.
"Of all of the professional athletes I've met, Dikembe Mutombo's had the greatest personal impact on me.
I traveled with him and the NBA to the first Africa 100 camp -- a trip that changed my life and ultimately led to me leaving ESPN full time to pursue teaching and practicing conflict resolution.
Before my time at ESPN, I had studied international conflict resolution and was committed to making a difference in the world. I was sure someday I'd be a mediator, out walking into the deepest, darkest areas of conflict, trying to shine a light on the humanity that still connects us together.
However after graduation from my graduate program in conflict resolution, ESPN bought a website that myself and co-founder Jason Peery created, Sportstalk.com. Suddenly I was immersed in the sports world ... and loving every minute of it. After a couple of years, my focus had totally shifted. Trade rumors and draft rankings consumed every thought and ever hour. I had a dream job, but inside I was lost.
When I found out about the Africa 100 and what Mutombo was going to do, I felt compelled to go. The experience changed my life. Seeing the poverty and despair on the faces of children was heart wrenching. But more so, seeing what people like Mutombo were doing inspired me. I was ashamed that I wasn't doing more with what I had. I wasn't the only one. A number of the NBA coaches and scouts I was with were touched deeply as well. I remember long conversations with Michael Curry and Lance Blanks about the ramifications of what we were seeing.
I spent several sleepless nights in the hotel, writing a long letter to my wife, Joanie. I told her about my desires to help people. How I wanted my life's work to amount to more than just basketball. I wanted to make a difference like Dikembe had. I told her that when I came home, I wanted to begin looking at changing professions. I was willing to give up my dream job if it meant a chance to help the lives of others.
I filed that story, which is my favorite I've ever written. I was overwhelmed by the response to it. People offered to help Mama Jackey. Donations came flowing in. ESPN featured the story on the front page of the site. It was my first inkling that sports truly can make a difference in the lives of others.
Within months I was looking for a job teaching conflict resolution program at a university, preparing to travel to Israel to write about sports and conflict resolution there, and thinking everyday about Mutombo and what I saw him do in Africa. In 2005, I left ESPN on a full-time basis to run the McKay Center for Intercultural Understanding in Hawaii. I also began reporting about and ultimately consulting and working with PeacePlayers International in the Middle East -- an organization that has shown the power of sports to bring enemies together.
I can trace almost all of it back to that day in Soweto. To those that say basketball can't make a difference in people's lives, I wish they could meet Dikembe. Not only has he changed the lives of tens of thousands in Africa, but he made a difference in my life that I'll never forget."
Thank you brother. You've made an impact on my life and my families that I'll forever grateful for. Here's to many more years of Dikembe Mutombo uplifiting the world ...