DJ Mbenga of the Los Angeles Lakers: If We Could Be Like Him

Nate SmithCorrespondent IMarch 19, 2010

LAS VEGAS - JULY 02:  NBA player D.J. Mbenga arrives at the Ante Up for Africa celebrity poker tournament at the Rio Hotel & Casino July 2, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada. Proceeds from the event will benefit survivors of the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, Sudan.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Growing up, I remember seeing those Gatorade commercials: "If I could be like Mike." Everywhere you went, the store, the gym, the schools, it seemed as if all the kids wanted to be like Michael "Mike" Jordan.

Now kids want to be like Kobe and Lebron. Our kids turn these athletes into heroes for what they are able to accomplish on the basketball court. We are no better than our kids as we accord legendary status to those who achieve an extraordinary level of excellence.

Kobe, Lebron, and Michael are all to be admired for what they do on the basketball court. They are all the very best at what they do. And with apologies to Magic and Wilt, they will probably be considered the holy trinity of basketball players in the future.

Still, the player I admire most won't go down as a top 3 player ever when it's all said and done. In fact, he has virtually no shot of ending up in the Hall of Fame. They won't build a statute of him outside of any arena. Sons and fathers won't tell tales of his heroics on the court. They won't hang his jersey in the rafters. Nonetheless, his exploits and his story might influence more lives in a positive way than any of the other three can.

I want to be like Mbenga.

Didier llunga-Mbenga (D.J) was born and raised in what is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). He was born into a political family and his father was a government employee.

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After a new regime took over in the country, D.J., his father, and his brothers were all imprisoned. D.J. and his family were set to be executed for their political opposition. But before the killings could take place, D.J's father negotiated for his sons to be released from jail.

D.J. made it; his father had to stay behind, and was eventually executed.

D.J. could not stay in his native country. If he remained, he would certainly be murdered. Instead, he traveled to Belgium where he received political asylum, as well as training in basketball.

D.J. could have given up on life. He could have let his own personal tragedy serve as an excuse for a life deferred. Who could blame him if he did? One can only imagine the pain of losing a father while simultaneously being displaced from your native home, family, and culture.

But D.J. has always been strong—both in mind and body. While he is as physically gifted as they come (7'0'', 260 pounds), his greatest muscle is his mind.

He has been able to navigate different cultures and countries in the world while remaining authentic to himself. He speaks five languages: French, Portuguese, English, Lingala and Tshiluba. He is a black belt in Judo and also an NBA champion.

His "Congo Cash" nickname was affectionately given to him by Kobe Bryant, out of respect for D.J.'s uncanny ability to knock down open shots in practice and in games. He has a close relationship with Bryant, and the two men share a mutual respect for one another.

This week, D.J. told Kobe that he would be getting him a gift. The gift was a basketball court dedicated in Kobe's name in the Capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Kinshasa.

In describing the project to a Lakers' reporter, D.J. said, "I always say, when we talk about Michael Jordan we always set him apart. But people gotta realize now, it’s not just Michael Jordan. It’s Kobe too. I told him, I’m going to give you the best gift you’ve ever had … I’m building a basketball court in Congo with your name on it. People, they love you there. You helped me to get a ring, I’m going to give you something back. I’m going to give you a basketball court with your name—that’s something nobody else can have. Even Michael Jordan never had that."

He is not building this court just because he admires Kobe's basketball skill. He is building it also because he recognizes that kids in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are just like the kids in the United States of America.

They admire the best athletes as if they are heroes. In a country that is being plagued with youth drugs and violence, perhaps Kobe's name and D.J.'s foundation will help inspire kids to pick up a ball instead of a gun; to play on the courts instead of selling drugs.

People outside of L.A. often ask why he is on the team. "What contributions does he make?" D.J. was brought in on a 10-day contract in January 2008. Since then, he's earned a full contract and a roster spot. He has won the hearts of the fans and he is an integral part of the team.

Yes, the fans love him because he is a team-first guy and he hustles and he plays strong defense. But they also love him because they know there's something deeper to D.J. than just his basketball talent. His smile is infectious, but there's something more to him: a passion that is noticeable, even if not transparent.

D.J. is not just a good and a decent man. He is also a leader. He knows that people in his home are watching him. He knows that the kids look up to him. He is a role model, and unlike many athletes, D.J. is prepared for that responsibility. 

He was recently asked why he doesn't participate in a reality show. His response was telling:

"I can’t do a reality show. That’s not my persona. I’m a leader. I’m not a leader on the (Lakers), but I’m a leader where I come from. People are looking at me. People hear what I say, they know what I do. I can’t do some stuff that’s stupid like that. That’s all we have over there. We have messed up everything (in Congo). We’ve messed up politically, we’ve messed up our education, our economy…so I can’t come with something like that. People are looking to me for inspiration and so I will live up to that."

Once you dig beneath the surface, you find that he's acutely aware of his responsibilities as a human being and desperately committed to making a difference in the lives of the people in his home country.

That's something that's more important than a MVP trophy or a name plate in Springfield, Ill.

Next time you open a bottle of Gatorade, stop and think. "If I could be like..."