Late on a Saturday afternoon, Dikembe Mutombo is about to enter dangerous ground before 7,000 screaming kids. The 28-year-old Denver Nuggets basketball star will declare himself a Role Model, a title many other athletes fear and avoid -- with good reason. There have been too many revelations of unpleasant reality when the beam of hero worship has followed them into their private worlds.

Most of his teammates have performed their required duties at the rally, taken their bows, climbed into their luxury sedans and headed for the suburbs. But Mutombo's seven-foot frame springs from its mantis-like crouch in a folding chair and hip-hops to center court in the size 20 basketball shoes that Adidas named for him.

"Thank you for allowing me to be one of your role models," he tells the Rocky Mountain area students gathered in Denver's McNichols Arena for this National Basketball Association "Stay in School Jam."

"I congratulate myself in the accomplishments I have made so far," the former Georgetown University center says, one slender hand stuffed into his black sweat suit as he prowls the court like a giant rap star. Then he recites his favorite bromide, sounding like the good Republican that he is not: "Any decision you make today in your life will dictate your future."

His five-minute performance could be titled "Be Like Me."

And just who would that be? The Mutombo who punched out a teammate at practice a few days before? The ungracious player who told the NBA to "go to hell" when he wasn't picked for the all-star team? The cold-eyed realist who dumped his fiancee 17 hours before the wedding over a prenuptial agreement? The paranoid who earns more than $3 million a year and complains that he's unappreciated? No, on this day he is asking the kids to follow a man whose life reflects his deep commitment to family, personal achievement and doing something important. He wants them to follow the example set by the aspiring diplomat who is helping raise a 5-year-old nephew at his home in Potomac, Md. Who speaks seven languages, won a science scholarship to Georgetown University, received the most votes from his colleagues to represent them in the NBA players' union and who journeys to Africa every summer with the international relief organization CARE.

He is Citizen Mutombo, the ambitious native of Zaire who learned the English language in a few weeks, earned his degree in linguistics and African studies, helps support dozens of family members with his millionaire's salary and has become one of the most important sports figures in sports-crazy Denver. The man who is determined to be more than a basketball star.

"When I move on and people ask me what I've done, where have you worked, what am I going to say? I just played basketball? I don't want to be sitting on my ass when things are happening around me," he says, dining on hot chocolate and Salmon Honolulu at his favorite seafood restaurant. He dabs a tissue at a seven-stitched upper lip, the result of an errant elbow from a giant on the Utah Jazz. "Some days I hate my job," he moans.

The mile-long legs capped by Italian loafers stretch across the aisle, a gentle barrier that fails to deter an autograph seeker from interrupting his meal. "Those kids look after me," he says in a gravelly baritone. "I will sign autographs," which he calls les devoirs -- French for "homework."

Mutombo has his sights set on becoming Africa's ambassador to the world: "The first tall guy to sit on the {U.N.} Security Council." For the past three years he has traveled to the continent on behalf of CARE -- visiting schools, holding children in his arms and meeting with political leaders. This summer he will journey to his native Zaire for the first time in eight years to see for himself that country's imploding political and economic conditions. "My job helps me get things done that I wouldn't be able to do if I was a regular guy -- like raising money for refugees with just one phone call," he says.

"His off-court vision is quite expansive," said NBA Commissioner David Stern, who accompanied him to South Africa last summer. It's the on-court part that's the problem. Stern's NBA loves a hero, and Mutombo's American success story is just the thing agents and handlers salivate over. If only he weren't such a whiny jerk. Some who've followed his career say the vitriol and self-absorption he displays when within range of a basketball court may deny him the national stature he craves.

"As he matures, perhaps he will understand better and internalize better some of the slings and arrows of sports," says Washington sports agent David Falk, who represents Mutombo and two dozen other NBA players. Praise-Hungry

The Denver Nuggets locker room after a game is a crush of flat-bellied princes in various states of undress. Millions of dollars in salaries lather themselves with lotion, strap on gold chains, perhaps plug in an earring and drape themselves in Armani and Versace. They pad across the soft carpet and outside to their BMWs, Mercedeses and Range Rovers, plucking relatives and hangers-on from the waiting crowd.

On the court, Mutombo stands at the top of the totem. He is "Big Fella," the one indispensable Nugget. "The cornerstone," says rookie Jalen Rose. That foundation rests upon one intrinsic talent: Mutombo is blessed with an awesome sense of timing, an ability to leap in the air at the precise second a basketball heads upward on its arc to the hoop and knock it away. It is this gift, like Koufax's left arm or Nicklaus's swing of a golf club, that elevates Mutombo above the herd of NBA hopefuls and into the select club of millionaires-for-life. He leads the league in blocked shots and is second in rebounds -- though for a team that's in the midst of a middling season. "If he goes down . . ." says Rose, shaking his head as he sits in front of his locker.

It is a February evening, and the Nuggets are upbeat after delivering a 105-75 hammering to the visiting Philadelphia 76ers. Reporters file into the locker room and spray questions at the players, who this evening are only too happy to talk about the hot shooting and in-your-face dunks they delivered upon the hapless Sixers. Mutombo sits on his plastic chair -- as usual, one of the last ones to dress. Underneath is a bottle of Naprosyn, an anti-inflammatory drug to ease the pain of too many miles on the hardwood court. Ace bandages hold bags of ice on his knees while the braces that supported them during the game rest around his ankles. He is pleased about his performance against Philly's 7-foot-6-inch Shawn Bradley, a gawky specimen better suited to his Mormon missionary work than the NBA. He swills a can of Gatorade and explains to a Polish journalist that he learned foreign languages in Zaire because he lived in an international neighborhood of its capital, Kinshasa.

Then he suddenly stops discussing the game; a harrowing thought has entered his mind. He fixes upon a local sportswriter and asks him intently about the chances of his losing the rebounding title this year to San Antonio forward Dennis Rodman. This is prime Mutombo: the boyish need for praise that grinds on his teammates, the emotional outbursts that alarm his handlers.

"He's very into personal accomplishments, and when they don't come along, he takes personal offense," says local sportscaster Ron Zappolo.

Mutombo acknowledges that part of his need for recognition stems from the success of pals Patrick Ewing (of the New York Knicks) and Alonzo Mourning (Charlotte Hornets), former Georgetown big men who are big scorers on successful teams. They get the glamorous endorsements and national attention that has so far eluded Mutombo. After a disappointing season a couple of years ago, Mutombo went to a Ewing-Mourning playoff game but stood alone in the hallway, unable to watch.

Seth Matlins, of Arlington-based ProServ, which markets professional athletes, says Mutombo doesn't get the big contracts because "he doesn't stand out." There's a bunch of centers like Mutombo who block shots and get rebounds, but Mutombo does not have the scoring bang that leads to the off-court buck. "He's not at the talent level of Patrick and Alonzo," says teammate Reggie Williams, another Georgetown alumnus. Denver's location in America's Outback -- 600 miles from the nearest big city -- doesn't help either.

But that's just the reason so many sportswriters and fans love him: He is not your normal, all-American jock who has been courted by coaches since junior high. He was more like your normal African middle-class kid. The big NBA payday that lay ahead wasn't apparent to the gawky bookworm who dreamed of going to medical school and spent more time sitting on the veranda with a book than shooting baskets.

"Wanting people to recognize his accomplishments, in a sense, is a certain type of pride that's part cultural," says cousin Louis Kanda, a Washington surgeon. Family First

"I still have the picture in my mind of him walking onto the court the first time, falling down and cutting his chin while practicing jump rope," says Mutombo's older brother, Ilo, 34, who works for Comsat, the Nuggets' parent company, which is headquartered in Bethesda. "Two days later, the fear went away and he was ready to play again. He became the youngest member of the national team."

The close-knit Protestant household of eight children was presided over by Samuel Mutombo Sr., an educator who stressed learning over everything else. The family comes from the Luba tribe, a highly disciplined society that is the intellectual and professional backbone of Zaire.

In his senior year of high school, Mutombo won an international science competition and received an academic scholarship to Georgetown, where he planned to prepare himself for a career in medicine. The school heard about the tall kid from Zaire from a U.S. international agency, and Coach John Thompson talked to Mutombo about playing basketball for the Hoyas. He was on a basketball scholarship his last three years at the school.

World Bank Africa official Francisco Aguirre-Sacasa remembers Mutombo as a summer intern who read French-language newspapers and was "completely plugged into the politics of Zaire. He could discuss the finer points of the state-owned copper company and its poor financial situation. Most American kids couldn't talk about IBM like that."

Mutombo becomes almost giddy when asked about his native continent, though he has stayed away from Zaire for eight years because of the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko. Last year, Mobutu's troops -- with guns drawn -- entered his parents' house about two miles from the palace in Kinshasa and stole everything of value. Mutombo's parents were unharmed, but he says his father has left the bullet holes in the walls for Mutombo to see.

But this summer "I am going back because I want kids to know that no matter how sick and bad the conditions, you can make it," he said. "Your everyday decisions dictate your future. They see me, a young African child who made it in a difficult world."

Though he may appear at first to be capricious or even naive, Mutombo has risen to his station because of an inner self that shuts off the warm and fuzzy emotions that can cloud decision-making. He can appear goofy and playful, as when he baits teammate Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf about religion, but he straps on his nothing-but-business face when he marches off with a builder to inspect his new house.

For all his love of people, Mutombo has a fundamental distrust of his fellow man. Even, apparently, the woman he almost wed.

"People who I have met since I joined the NBA . . . I have doubts," he says. "People try to take advantage of you."

Falk saw this side of his client last summer, during the intense negotiations surrounding the meltdown of Mutombo's engagement. It is the Mutombo who learned during hours of talks with Georgetown's Thompson that tough business decisions must be made without the distractions of personal feelings.

"Thompson's influence is preponderant," Falk says. "He taught him to be wary of mixing the business and personal sides of his life. It's good advice," even though Falk doesn't like it when Mutombo keeps their own relationship from becoming more informal and friendly.

"You need to be aware of when you are talking about millions of dollars that it is business," Mutombo said. "I learned that from Big John." Mutombo recalls that Thompson went so far as to ban players from his house. They still communicate a couple of times a week, and Mutombo consults with the coach on important decisions -- such as the one to cancel his wedding plans.

When Mutombo talks at first about the Breakup, it's as if he is squeezing every word through an emotional sifter -- carefully searching for the ones that will lay the questions to rest. He alights on a few: "one of the toughest decisions I ever made. I just pushed the button."

The cancellation the day before the wedding -- which sent Mutombo into therapy, cost him a quarter million dollars and left an embittered fiancee and family -- is the result of a confluence of family and culture wrapped with the dangerous thread of big money.

"In my society, the person you marry becomes part of your family," Mutombo says. "It's different than America, where you start a new family. I have to care for my family." Mutombo's culture dictates that an individual's success is shared by his entire family, and so he dispenses cars to his brothers, new homes to his parents, mortgage help to his seven siblings, and clothes, tuition and spending money to cousins, nieces and nephews. Mutombo, who provides for an extended family of about 50, has been the financial mainstay since an older brother, a successful architect, died about five years ago.

When the Nuggets visited Washington for a game in February, Mutombo spent thousands of dollars to buy 95 tickets for relatives and friends.

"I'm fighting my culture in some ways," he says, laughing. "I watch myself because I don't want to give away everything I have -- otherwise I die poor."

So when Michelle Roberts's friends and advisers said she should get control of his estate in the event of his death, as is common in America, Mutombo and his advisers, who included Falk, became nervous. If the marriage ended in divorce, according to Mutombo, Roberts wanted a percentage of his earnings instead of a flat settlement that would include a mansion and more than $1 million in cash spread out over six years. "That's when I walked," Mutombo said, putting his hands to his head as if a bomb had gone off. "Poof. Boom." "He decided to protect his wealth," said Ilo, his brother, who also is perhaps Mutombo's closest friend.

Roberts's family and friends bristle at the hint that there was any fortune-hunting going on.

"She wanted no percentages," said Roberts's father, Arnold, a gynecologist. He described his family as an accomplished group of physicians and said Michelle, who was 23 years old at the time of the planned wedding, is a medical student with her own high-income potential who began dating Mutombo before he had any wealth. Mutombo "assumed he was doing us a favor by marrying my daughter," Roberts said. "She was doing a favor to marry him."

On the Friday afternoon before the wedding, the pair met in a parking lot near Falk's office on Wisconsin Avenue in Northwest Washington. She wouldn't agree to his 23-page prenuptial contract and the wedding was off. It was June 24, 1994, the day before the million-dollar extravaganza with 500 guests from around the world that was going to light up Washington's National Presbyterian Church on Mutombo's 28th birthday.

Teammate Reggie Williams got a call at 2 a.m. the day of the wedding notifying him that it was canceled. Teammate Bryant Stith cut his own honeymoon short and showed up at church in his formals. That weekend Mutombo flew off to Las Vegas with Ewing and Mourning to watch a prizefight. And then he went to see a therapist.

A friend of Roberts, who asked that her name not be used, said the University of Maryland medical student is still distraught.

"Nobody came out on top on this," says the friend. The Role Model

The "Stay in School" jam session is over and the Denver sun this Saturday afternoon is dropping behind the Rocky Mountains. The army of adolescents that went wild for Mutombo and some junior rap groups has cleared out. The athletes are long gone and McNichols Arena is dark.

Outside, the parking lot is empty except for a black Mercedes with smoked windows and the Maryland license plates: DM 55, which is Mutombo's jersey number.

And there's still a crowd of kids in one corner. They thrust pens and paper toward the extraordinarily tall man who laughs and patiently scratches his full name on each T-shirt or program. Still doing his homework. JUMP INFORMATION APPENDED CAPTION: Dikembe Mutombo, on the court and off, left: "When I move on and people ask me what I've done . . . what am I going to say? I just played basketball?" CAPTION: In his Georgetown days Mutombo was a force to be reckoned with -- and still is: He leads the NBA in blocked shots and is second in rebounding. CAPTION: Dikembe Mutombo, in his Denver town house next to a painting by his brother, an artist in the D.C. area.