By Fran Blinebury, for NBA.com
Posted Apr 22 2009 5:22PM
HOUSTON -- So many memories of a man with so many names -- Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacque Wamutombo.
The defiant competitor with the shake of the head and the long, wagging finger after he blocked yet another of those thousands of shots.
The practically delirious young man with the wide smile rolling happily on the court holding the basketball over his head after leading the Denver Nuggets to a spectacular upset of top-seeded Seattle in the first round of the 1994 NBA playoffs.
The aging veteran, down on the floor again, this time his eyes and his mouth wide open in horror as his fist pounded the hardwood in agony with 1:17 left in the first quarter at Portland's Rose Garden on Tuesday night.
My own favorite memory is from half a world away, in a dusty corner of South Africa's impoverished Soweto Township, where dozens of young children -- most of whom are HIV-positive -- have dressed Mutombo in the colorful garb and feathers of a Zulu warrior, then handed him a spear and are watching him comically attempt to dance to the song they are trying to sing through their giggling.
"What do you think?" he asked in a bellow of laughter. "Does Dikembe Mutombo have rhythm?"
Truth is, Mutombo has always had the rhythm of the ocean, the pulse of the planet upon which he's felt obligated to do more than just walk across for a handful of decades.
Those kids at a place called Ithuteng Trust that day had thrown open their arms to a group representing the NBA's Basketball Without Borders program for giving them their time and embraced Mutombo for giving them his love. The little dance took place on the brown dirt lawn of a brand new dormitory that had been built with the assistance of Mutombo's latest gift of $100,000.
"It might be the first time many of them have ever slept in a clean bed," he said. "It is hardly a sacrifice for me."
Since he came out of Georgetown University and into the NBA 18 years ago, Mutombo has been known for three things: blocked shots, that distinctive voice that sounds like the Cookie Monster swallowed James Earl Jones and a sheer joy for life.
He founded the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation in 1997 to benefit the people of his homeland of Kinshasha in the Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2007, he opened the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital and Research Center there, named after his mother.
And all along the way, he never lost his passion for playing the game and competing at the highest level. At all of his NBA stops in Denver, Atlanta, Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York and Houston, he's been part Pied Piper and part Gen. Patton.
When Mutombo signed on again for this fifth season with the Rockets on Dec. 31, he was re-entering a locker room that had become fractious and divided with rumors of rifts between Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming and Ron Artest.
"I will take care of this," Mutombo pronounced. "Maybe I will have to grab some heads and bang them together. But I will fix the situation."
And even though he played just 96 minutes in nine games, the Rockets' wounds were healed and they finished the regular season on a 33-14 tear. Then he played 18 minutes and pulled down nine rebounds as the Rockets won the opener of their Playoffs series with the Blazers.
Mutombo is an eight-time All-Star who won the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year award four times and stands second on the NBA's career blocks list with 3,289.
But if you wanted to talk numbers, the ones he'd brag about were the direct numbers he had to NBA commissioner David Stern and to the White House. He was a guest of President George W. Bush at the State of the Union address in 2008 and was invited to President Barack Obama's inauguration.
He is part world ambassador and part basketball mentor.
When Yao got into the habit of drawing charges in the middle of the season, Mutombo chastised him that it was no honorable way for a big man to play the game.
"Maybe that's why China never won the Asian championship," he said laughing loudly. "You block the shot."
When rookie Anthony Randolph of the Golden State Warriors kept driving to the basket to challenge, Mutombo repeatedly blocked his shots and offered advice.
"I told him he doesn't know about Dikembe Mutombo, he needs to watch ESPN Classic," he said with the raspy roar.
He's always been proud of his accomplishments and his connections.
After Mutombo was hit with a technical foul several weeks ago for complaining from his seat on the bench, he held up his cell phone in the locker room. "I have commissioner Stern on speed dial," he said giggling. "I will have to tell him that the NBA doesn't need my $1,000 in fine money. There are hungry kids in Africa and he'd be taking food out of their mouths."
When he returned from the Obama inauguration, I asked him if he could see Oprah from his seat on the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
"Are you kidding?" he roared as the smile ran a fastbreak across his face. "I'm pretty sure she was sitting behind me."
As Yogi Berra might have said: half humanitarian, half teacher and half comedian.
All Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacque Wamutombo. One of a kind.
Longtime NBA writer Fran Blinebury's column appears weekly on NBA.com.
|Flynn Robinson dies at 72|
Flynn Robinson played 7 seasons in the NBA. He won an NBA Championship in 1972 with the Lakers and was selected as an All-Star in 1970.
|Durant Visits Tornado Victims|
Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder visit and lend a hand to the victims of the Oklahoma tornadoes.
|Preview: Sounds of the 2013 Playoffs|
An all-access pass to the most pressure packed time of the year, as the march to the NBA Finals continues.
|GameTime: Pacers-Heat Game 1|
Steve Smith and Isiah Thomas discuss the Heat's overtime win in Game 1 and what the Pacers' need to focus on for Game 2.
|GameTime: Stopping Parker|
Steve Smith and Isiah Thomas breakdown how the Grizzlies need to slow down Tony Parker for Game 3.