When a seven-year playing career came to its end, Patrick Mutombo briefly shifted his focus to what he always thought life after basketball would entail.
He wanted to be a diplomat or a lawyer.
“At that time it was a passion of mine,” Mutombo said.
“I was studying political science and international relations and I looked at the world as this fascinating place. The relationships between countries and different entities was something that was really, really interesting to me. Then also, my grandfather was a judge. I don't know if that's what attracted me, I'm not sure.”
He thought about his present situation and laughed.
“But I ended up coaching basketball.”
As the newly-named head coach of Raptors 905, Mutombo’s coaching career has taken its next turn. He replaces Jama Mahlalela, who will join Nick Nurse’s bench this year with the Raptors, after two years of running the G League squad out of Mississauga.
“I'm excited. Bobby (Webster, the Raptors’ GM) and Nick asked me if I wanted to do it, if I was interested in coaching the 905,” Mutombo said. “It'll be a good opportunity for me to go and grow and keep learning and contribute to the team in that way.”
Mutombo joined the Raptors’ coaching staff as an assistant under Dwane Casey in 2016 and stayed on under Nurse. He’s played a key role in the organization’s vaunted development program, working closely with Norman Powell, Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam and Chris Boucher, to name a few, watching each of them blossom in their NBA careers.
“He's got good, diverse experience,” Nurse said of Mutombo.
“He's a former player, he worked with some very good player development coaches in his time and he certainly brought that to the staff. He has a wealth of experience in a lot of different areas. He did scouts, he did a lot of individual work with players, a lot of film (with) players.”
“It’s so fulfilling to be a part of seeing these guys come and work their butts off and to be rewarded,” Mutombo said of the young players that have come up through the Raptors’ development system. .
“I always tell Fred, ‘You have a great story. You need to write a book because your story’s incredible.’ It’s inspiring to me. Chris, Norm and all those guys are very inspiring stories. They've come, they've worked, they believe in themselves. They bet on themselves and they’ve been rewarded.”
Mutombo’s career has been a learning experience and a bet on himself, as well. Born in Congo (then-Zaire), he didn’t pick up a basketball until he was 14 or 15, he said, when his family had relocated to Belgium. He ended up playing Div. II college ball at Metropolitan State, in Denver. After a pair of Div. II championships and a Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference player of the year award, he went back to Europe, playing in Italy and Greece between 2003 and 2009.
At a low point in Greece (“I was having a very hard time with my team,” he says), Mutombo made a discovery that altered his life. He walked into an art gallery and started talking with its owner. That man would go on to become a mentor and good friend to him. He later told him that the day Mutombo walked into the gallery, he said to his wife, ‘That guy’s a painter.’
Mutombo always had an interest in art but with the guidance of his friend, delved into it and his work went to another level. Soon, he was painting all night, sleeping a few hours in the morning and going to practice, then games and back to his impromptu home studio to repeat the process.
His Instagram account: https://www.instagram.com/patrick_mutomboofficial shows just a fraction of the work he’s done and a number of his paintings hang in his co-workers’ homes, including Nurse’s.
“The way I look at basketball, basketball is not that much different to me than art,” Mutombo said.
“As an artist, I look at basically the same principle. You have an idea and then you try to bring it to life. You have an idea of how you want your team to play, what you might implement, what your philosophy is going to be. Then you have the ingredients. In painting you have the colours and you have the canvas that you have to paint. In basketball you have the practices and you're trying hard to put out there a product that is pleasant for people to enjoy.
“Same thing with the painting, you try to put out there something that people are going to watch and enjoy, but ultimately, that is a result of your creativity and the different tools you've used. You’ve poured yourself into that project...to me they're very similar.”
A back injury in his final pro season, playing with the Bakersfield Jam, led to Mutombo spending more time with the coaching staff and mentoring younger players. The coaching bug was sinking its teeth into him and wasn’t going to let go. His college coach, Mike Dunlap (a recent assistant coach hire by Milwaukee), offered him a spot on his staff at Metro in 2011-12.
When the NBA’s lockout-shortened season got underway, then-Nuggets coach George Karl invited Mutombo to make the quick trip across the street from the college’s facilities to the Pepsi Center, where the Nuggets are housed. The GM at the time in Denver was Masai Ujiri, who gave the thumbs up on the hire.
“Masai was huge, he really helped me out. This doesn’t happen if Masai doesn’t give the approval,” Mutombo said of his first meeting with Ujiri. “I didn’t know Masai at all, but he was so gracious to me. He met with me and he gave me this opportunity.”
After three years with the Nuggets and a season as an assistant coach with the Austin Spurs in the G League, Mutombo landed with the Raptors. The artist in him has fallen in love with Toronto, on and off of the court over the last four years.
“I think I heard somewhere that Toronto was the most diverse city in the world,” he said.
“You see the different colours and the different people, different faces, it’s beautiful to see. There’s such a vibrant culture in Toronto. I think that part makes Toronto special. I'm also an artist and the art scene is booming with different art galleries and different artists from all over the world. I found a home in Toronto. That's what to me makes it intriguing, interesting, exciting and rich.”
He’s been around enough coaches in his career to know that a head coaching job only works if he’s authentic. He’s won championships as a player in college and overseas and of course he was a part of the Raptors’ 2019 title. He’ll be himself in his first head coaching role, will develop talent, build relationships and will undoubtedly continue to turn inspiration into art.
“I'm fortunate enough to have been around winning. I know what winning looks like,” he said. “My mandate is to add value and help the players and the staff I will be working with.”
Nurse and now five other current NBA head coaches have G League head coaching experience, with three of them being hired since the Raptors won it all in 2019.
“I always say that everybody that goes to the G League and has the opportunity to become a head coach will grow exponentially in their coaching acumen,” Nurse said.
“This is me trying to advance (Mutombo) as a coach. Hopefully that advances him in his career at some point as well. This is a great opportunity for him to do that.
“If you look at the history of Raptors 905 (head coaches), you go with Jesse Murmeys to Jerry Stackhouse to Jama, they would all tell you that they improved a lot. Being able to be the head coach and run that team certainly enhanced their abilities as a coach.”