Assist Leader

Peter Tucci could have raked in the presents for his 40th birthday. Instead, he helped Dikembe Mutombo build a hospital in the Congo

Published in 2007 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers — June 2007

Last September, basketball star Dikembe Mutombo made his way up to the 49th floor of Philadelphia’s One Liberty. He stooped to fold his 7-foot-2-inch frame through the conference room door, where a group of DLA Piper attorneys had gathered to hear his plans to build the Congo’s first newly equipped medical facility in 40 years. Peter Tucci called the meeting and had only one request of his colleagues: no autographs. They respected his wishes at first. But once the question-and-answer period wrapped, 30 basketballs suddenly appeared. 

“I don’t know how you hide something as big as a basketball,” Tucci remembers with a laugh. “They must’ve had them under their chairs.”

He understands the impulse. He’s long been a fan of Mutombo’s, dating back to the center’s days swatting shots for Georgetown, which is also his alma mater. When Mutombo was traded to the Sixers in 2001, he was thrilled. 

That year, Tucci and his wife were pondering what to do for his 40th birthday. They knew they wanted a party but felt uncomfortable accepting gifts. 

“I was thinking, ‘What else could I do?’” he says. Then he remembered seeing the 60 Minutes segment where Ed Bradley accompanied Mutombo to Kinshasa to report on the nation’s widespread disease and poverty. So he called the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation, which has raised millions of dollars to help fight disease in the Congo, to ask if he could give its name to his guests as a suggested recipient of funds. Foundation gatekeeper Susan Johnson gave him the third degree for several days, trying to suss out an ulterior motive. “It was an unusual request,” she says. “It hadn’t happened before.” Did he want tickets? Nope. Signed sneakers? No. For Mutombo to appear at his party? “I just want him to play well for the Sixers,” Tucci recalls telling her. “I just want to send you some money.” And he did—the party raised just over $10,000.

Soon after, foundation officials started to negotiate contracts for the building of the hospital in Kinshasa, and Johnson asked Tucci if he’d help. Tucci negotiated with the Belgian construction company, the French design firm and the Congolese government pro bono. The biggest hurdle was the Congo’s political instability. “I think we dealt with five finance ministers over two to three years,” he says. “We’d get approvals for one thing, but then the minister would change, and we’d have to start the process all over again.” 

A photo on the credenza in Tucci’s light-filled corner office shows him and Mutombo holding champagne glasses to celebrate the closing of the hospital negotiations. “I’ll always remember that dinner down in Washington,” Tucci says. It was the first time he met Mutombo. They headed over to a restaurant with the consul general from the Congolese embassy. 

“The conversation was fascinating,” he says. “We’d go back and forth from discussing how construction’s going to the AIDS epidemic in Africa to what it’s like to guard Shaq to how helpful Bono’s been.”

Help from rock stars is nice, but Mutombo clearly values Tucci’s efforts. He invited him to his 38th birthday—where the comparatively diminutive lawyer was sandwiched between Mutombo and fellow NBA big man Alonzo Mourning—and told the Philadelphia Business Journal, “It just goes to show you how much people want to change the world.” 

The hospital is set to open in the Congo in July, and Tucci will be there. So will Mutombo. 

“Dikembe’s really a trailblazer,” Tucci says. “This is someone who’s leading the charge.

“Plus, he’s a nice guy.” 

Consider his response when faced with 30 basketballs held aloft by awestruck lawyers: The all-star stuck around to sign every one.  

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