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Mutombo making a difference in war-torn homeland

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Dikembe Mutombo gives back
  • Former NBA star is committed to helping people in Democratic Republic of Congo
  • His foundation helps provide health care and education for many Congolese
  • Mutombo has been a part of CNN Heroes since 2007, when he served on the Blue Ribbon Panel

Editor's Note: Voting is under way for the 2010 CNN Hero of the Year. The winner will be announced at "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute," which airs Thanksgiving night, November 25, at 8 p.m. ET. See the top 10 CNN Heroes of 2010 and and cast your vote.

(CNN) -- Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dikembe Mutombo came to the United States on an academic scholarship to study medicine at Georgetown University. But his career path soon changed after joining the school's basketball team. Mutombo would go on to play in the NBA for 18 years and become one of the league's all-time best defensive players.

Mutombo has always been involved in humanitarian work, particularly through the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation. He has been involved with CNN Heroes since 2007, when he served on the Blue Ribbon Panel that selects the top Heroes of the year.

Mutombo recently sat down with CNN producer Allison Blakely to talk about Heroes and his philanthropy. Below are excerpts from that interview.

Allison Blakely: What was your inspiration for starting the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation?

Dikembe Mutombo: After traveling so much in Africa, doing some work for different organizations, we [had] witnessed so much suffering and pain. The Democratic Republic of Congo [has suffered] more than 10 years of civil unrest, where more than 5.3 million people have died. People have [called it] the World War III of Africa. (shakes his head) People are left with nothing. I decided to create the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation to change the living condition of my people in Africa.

Blakely: You originally intended to be a doctor. Now you've built a hospital in your homeland. Tell me about it.

Mutombo: [It] was my [hope] in building a hospital to let people know that things can be much better in the future. ... The Old Testament says, "People perish because of lack of education," and that's what we are trying to do. It's through education we will reduce the mortality rate: telling those moms how they can keep their babies away from mosquitoes, how they can get their baby vaccinated and deliver the baby in better circumstances.

There was a woman that delivered a premature baby; I think that baby was like the size of my hands. We were the only hospital that was well-equipped with the high technology. The baby was able to grow stronger until it was able to go home. To see that child every time I go home is like I gave life to somebody. I think each one of us in this world, we have a duty to fulfill our mission. God has blessed some of us in the position to touch many people, and so many people can hear our voices from distances away, and I think I am capable to do it.

Blakely: What is a hero to you, and what do you think inspires some of these people?

Mutombo: A hero is someone who inspires you with their voice or with their acts or with their hands. That's a hero.

Blakely: You were on the CNN Heroes Blue Ribbon Panel back in 2007. What was that like?

Mutombo: I think it's great. I [would] encourage more people who have the strength and the courage and the love and the commitment of going out and making a difference to go and try. ... You can't just live in a society where you think, "I don't have anything to contribute." It's all about the gift that you have. ... You can inspire so many people.

Blakely: You went out to the "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute" last year, right? How was that?

Mutombo: I was just walking down the red carpet, able to meet Anderson Cooper and everybody who came from the different parts of the world, celebrating our work and our contribution to this world. It was amazing.

Blakely: So, you've met some of the CNN Heroes. How have you been inspired by them?

Mutombo: Oh, inspired a lot. To see some of the people -- how they have gone on with no money, with no mean[s] -- there's a lot of people out there who are contributing. We all have some obligation to fulfill something in this world we're living in. It doesn't matter how long your life [is]. It is about your contribution, how much difference you're making. That's what those people are doing. I thank them, and I compliment them, and I salute them for their effort.