Mutombo, Hamilton share mission through Special Olympics

LOS ANGELES -- There wasn't one thing that moved Scott Hamilton and Dikembe Mutombo to do what they did.

But if there was for Mutombo, it may have been meeting the 14-year-old Special Olympics athlete from the Democratic Republic of Congo he calls "one of my special girls, my angel", whose father is serving a life sentence in prison for killing her mother.

"He beat her up and killed her because he blamed her for giving birth to a girl with intellectual disabilities," Mutombo explained.

For Hamilton, it may have been when he first joined the board of Special Olympics 14 years ago, and a former president showed him the photo of a small boy in rags, tethered by a leash and chained to his house.

"His parents worked and they didn't know what else to do with him," Hamilton said, "so they tied him up outside like they would a pet to make sure he didn't wander away."

More than likely, however, it was what Hamilton and his wife, Tracie, parents to two adopted children from Haiti, simply called "doing the right thing" in funding the 26-member Haitian team's trip to the World Games. And for Mutombo, whose charity foundation brought a four-member team from his native Congo to L.A., it was about "feeling good that I'm contributing to the world we live in."

The two Special Olympics ambassadors greeted each other warmly Monday as they crossed paths, and the sight of the 5-foot-3 Olympic gold medal-winning figure skater and 7-foot-2 soon-to-be Basketball Hall of Famer making small talk was a striking contrast, only highlighted by the dropped jaws of Hamilton's children, Jean Paul, 14; Evelyne, 11; and Maxx, 7 (brother Aidan was back home in Nashville).

"I come from a country that thinks intellectually disabled children are a curse, taboo, something your mom, an auntie, a grandpop did wrong ... That's how I was raised." Dikembe Mutombo

But the two men see eye-to-eye on what they feel is expected of them, sharing profound experiences at the World Games this week as two of the biggest pillars in the Special Olympics family.

For Mutombo, who became involved with Special Olympics early on in his 18-year NBA career, the challenge was simply finding intellectually disabled people in his native country. He helped build a $30-million, 300-bed hospital on the outskirts of his hometown and had yet to see a single person with intellectual disabilities in the eight years since.

"I come from a country that thinks intellectually disabled children are a curse, taboo, something your mom, an auntie, a grandpop did wrong. ... That's how I was raised," Mutombo said. "I said [to Special Olympics], 'Give me a chance and I'll find them and bring them to L.A.' It was a year-and-a-half process."

Through his foundation and with a financial contribution from Google, Mutombo found four centers that housed intellectually disabled kids -- "because the government did not do it," he said. "Seventy-five percent of these kids were abandoned."

When Mutombo told the country's prime minister of his intentions, "he had never heard of Special Olympics."

The Congolese athletes, ages 14 through 16 and all competing in track, trained on soccer fields for six to nine months. Originally there were five members of the team, but one boy, after being examined at Mutombo's hospital, was found to have a heart condition that needed treatment.

That their 25-hour flight to L.A. was their first time on a plane was the least of their concerns. "These kids had never been to a restaurant before," Mutombo said. "It was their first time in sneakers. They never saw a stadium. ... Everything is new to them. They remind me of myself when I came to America -- the language, getting the chance to sleep in your own bed. I grew up sleeping with four or five of my siblings."

Hamilton grew up the adopted son of a couple from Toledo, Ohio. "An unwanted pregnancy in a small town in Ohio and had absolutely no chance, and my life has been extraordinary," he said.

For every setback in his life, Hamilton explained, there was "something incredible that has come of it. It's been a repetitive theme for a long time. ... I had testicular cancer and a pituitary brain tumor and I've got two healthy biological children. That's impossible."

As they watched the tragedy unfold in Haiti during its 2010 earthquake with both deep gratitude and deep sorrow, Scott and Tracie went to the ravaged country intent on helping. What they did not intend was to adopt two children, they said, but after mountains of paperwork that seemed designed to turn them away, the couple came home with Jean Paul and Evelyne 10 months ago.

In Special Olympics meetings over approximately the same time period, Hamilton said the organization was looking for ways to alleviate budget concerns in its sponsorship program.

"I said, 'What would it cost to bring in Haiti?'" Hamilton said. "They gave me an amount and I said, 'We can do that. It's not cheap, but we can do that.'

"It just sort of felt organic to us since we are so committed to, and attached to, and in love with Haiti and the people of Haiti with Haitian-born people as members of our family. If we can do it, why wouldn't we?"

On Monday morning, Hamilton and his family ran into the delegation and took pictures with them. "I don't want a thank you," he said. "I just want them to be here."

Hamilton recalled that photo of the boy he saw 14 years ago, and then the after-photo "of him beaming with a soccer ball in his hand as a Special Olympics athlete. ... It fills you with hope. It's exciting."

Mutombo spoke of being touched to "see how a human being can change" and calls this week a celebration "for us, for our country, for our foundation. But for these kids, I'm just so happy for them.

"It's a sad story, but it needs to be told."