Time for Athletes to Show 'Yes We Can'
Mutombo managed to entice his college alums, Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning, and only a handful of other players to make the trip. NBA commissioner David Stern accompanied them.
Nine years later in 2003, Mutombo's vision and toil turned into the NBA's Basketball Without Borders. Dozens of players since have traveled all over the developing world every offseason using basketball to address all sorts of ills, from poor physical fitness to illiteracy.
Tuesday, Mutombo was in the throng here in the nation's capital to further soak up our new president's message, "Yes, we can." He wasn't the only well-known athlete somewhere on the Mall. Celtics' guard Ray Allen attended with team owner Steve Pagliuca. Free agent reliever LaTroy Hawkins was there.
Mutombo just happened to be one of the few athletes in attendance, or watching on from afar, who had been living up to President Obama's vision long before it was even revealed.
The question after the Obama euphoria subsides is what the others who make their living like Mutombo will do to honor this president they claimed to be so moved by. Actually, it is a question for any among us – 69 million-plus – who so enthusiastically put Obama in the Oval Office. As my man Dave Zirin likes to say, "I wouldn't ask anything of anyone else that I wouldn't ask of myself."
It had been quite some time before Mutombo organized NBA players to do something so collectively for others, however, that the sports world had witnessed something like that. Way back in 1965, a group of black NFL players, led by the great running back Jim Brown and Washington guard John Wooten, started a non-profit organization called the Negro Industrial and Economic Union. It managed to snare a half-million dollar grant from the Ford Foundation and another half-million dollars from the Commerce Department and went about helping finance new companies in half a dozen cities across the country.
"Using such aid, former Barber Dennis Taylor, 29, has built his year-and-a-half-old Magnificent Natural Products Inc., a Los Angeles cosmetics manufacturer, into a thriving concern that expects to gross at least $500,000 this year," Time magazine reported in October 1968 in a story about urban entrepreneurship helping rebuild riot-torn cities.
Since then, we've heard about individual efforts, like the oft-criticized Stephon Marbury's effort to raise funds for Katrina victims, or Phillies' All-Star shortstop Jimmy Rollins opening the J-Roll MVP Computer Lab for kids at a school in an at-risk community in Philadelphia. Tiger Woods started the Tiger Woods Learning Center in 2006 in Anaheim, Calif., to bolster kids' education in core school curriculum like math, science and language arts.
But what will athletes band together to do now?
For example, NFL players soon will be choosing a new executive director to replace the late Gene Upshaw. Will the players demand that the new union boss, as well as the league's owners, set aside more money for long-ago retired players, many of whom suffer from debilitating injuries and recently successfully sued the union for not including them in lucrative marketing deals with video game makers and other commercial sponsors that used their likenesses?
Will boxers pin to the wall Don King, who was seen at Tuesday's shaking an American flag and sporting a jacket adorned with his favorite phrase "Only in America," on joining with other promoters to create some sort of health-and-well-being fund for retired and injured fighters?
Will players in college, who wield so much untapped power they can't imagine, start demanding that their university athletic departments be as open to people of color and women in executive positions as they are to athletes of color on the field? Is it not time that they stop in masse signing letters of intent to play football at schools in the SEC that continue to struggle to embrace the message of inclusiveness being vocalized and acted upon by our new president? Who would dare argue against them in this climate of Cumbaya that so many people their age made possible?
Who would argue with any group of athletes right now who picked up President Obama's message and ran with it? After all, they can, as Mutombo showed long ago.