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Mutombo: Protector of the paint and his homeland

Center's humanitarian efforts matched defensive dominance

POSTED: Sep 10, 2015 3:47 PM ET

By Shaun Powell

BY Shaun Powell


Dikembe Mutombo Day

An all-access pass as Hall of Famer, Atlanta resident and former Hawk Dikembe Mutombo was honored by Fulton County, GA.

If you estimate that Dikembe Mutombo wagged his finger a few hundred times in his NBA career, then double that amount -- no, triple it -- to get an idea how often he sees a finger wagged at him.

He will walk down the street and some lady will playfully thrust an index finger in the air and smile and wave it side to side. He will go to a restaurant, and the waiter will wag. He will walk onto a plane and the pilots will wag.

After a business meeting?

While attending a charity event?


In China? Africa? Europe?

Wagging is international.

Iconic symbols never die, and they cling to our affections like a childhood memory. So when it comes to the wag, Mutombo is getting more than he ever gave, all these years later, because people don't forget and can't resist. Yet it's curious how this famously charming greeting perfectly captures who he was on the basketball court while going totally counter to who he was, and still is, away from basketball.

After blocking a shot, often into the second row, his subsequent wag carried the same meaning as your momma's, issued as a stern warning to the poor soul who mistakenly challenged Mutombo at the rim. It was a playful dis-invitation to a place known as Mutombo's House, meaning the painted area on the court. It was Mutombo speaking loudly without saying a word in his deep bass voice, lecturing by gesture and telling folks they ought to know better than try layups against a 7-foot-2 center with the reach of a giraffe.

Hall of Fame Press Conference: Mutombo

Dikembe Mutombo was a four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year (1995, 1997, 1998, 2001).

But the finger wag is the absolute wrong symbol to attach to Mutombo the humanitarian. He does not block, or reject, or shut out or discourage those in need. He was an eight-time NBA All-Star and a four-time Defensive Player of the Year and come September 11, a member of the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. And yet none of that weighs more than his aid for the impoverished in Africa and elsewhere. To the starving children his money and fundraising has helped feed, to the patients his hospital in his homeland of The Democratic Republic of the Congo has cured, Mutombo raises an index finger and bends it back and forth. As if to say: Come to Mutombo.

"I don't think we've seen another great player do so many great things away from the game," said Patrick Ewing, his friend and basketball mentor.

"Dikembe Mutombo is not only a friend to his people, but to all people," the South African leader Nelson Mandela once said.

BWB Africa: State of Mutombo

During the 2007 State of the Union Address, Dikembe Mutombo was recognized by President George W. Bush for his humanitarian efforts in Africa.

Mutombo visited the home of Mandela several times while conducting clinics in Africa; Mandela, a former boxer, was a big fan of sports and basketball. Mutombo is a chameleon, able to mingle with athletes and entertainers as well as politicians and businessmen with equal charm. Just in the last year, he sat courtside at a Brooklyn Nets game with Prince William and Kate Middleton, then at the NBA All-Star Game with former President Clinton. That ability to glide comfortably among all people is what you'd expect from someone who graduated from Georgetown with twin degrees in linguistics and diplomacy.

But his impact in society was first made possible because of basketball and his impact on the game. Mutombo played 18 years in the NBA, three short of the all-time record. Only Hakeem Olajuwon blocked more shots. He helped the Nuggets score one of the greatest playoff upsets ever, co-starred on a Sixers team that went to the NBA Finals, generated a basketball resurgence in Atlanta and was a surprisingly productive player in his 40s with the Rockets.

"His defense," Olajuwon said, "is what he'll be remembered for. One of the best I've ever seen. He owned the paint."

Unlike many who make the Hall of Fame, Mutombo wasn't a ready-made basketball product, someone who was prepared and packaged by the AAU machine or weaned on American soil. He went from Kinshasa to Georgetown on an academic scholarship, hoping to take advantage of Washington D.C.'s international and political flavor. Of course, being tall on that campus meant he'd have no choice but to play for the Hoyas; John Thompson saw to that. Mutombo tried out for the Hoyas as a sophomore.

"I was very raw, not very skilled," Mutombo said. "Then there was a game against St. John's that year when I registered 12 blocks. And then coach Thompson said, 'We can win with this guy.' That's when I knew I could have a future in basketball."

Mutombo said Thompson was the perfect coach for him because Thompson was big, intimidating and blunt.

"There was a fear you had with him," Mutombo said. "If you didn't do what you were supposed to do, you got punished, doing suicide drills. And you just didn't want him to get angry at you. It was like I was in the military. But those things made me a better person. The discipline I got from coach Thompson prepared me for the battles I had to fight as an adult."

Mutombo was drafted fourth overall in 1991 by the Nuggets, but not before doing summer internships at World Bank and on Capitol Hill; even then, Mutombo was preparing for his life's calling. Because he started college late and stayed four years, he was 25 when he started in the NBA, giving him a maturity not found in most rookies.

And he made an immediate splash in Denver, making the All-Star team as a rookie and averaging 16.6 points, 12.3 rebounds and almost three blocks. Gradually, the Nuggets built a young core around Mutombo that became famous for a seismic series in the 1994 playoffs. Down 0-2 in a best-of-five first round, the Nuggets rallied and beat the Sonics, becoming the first No. 8 seed to topple a No. 1.

The video of Mutombo squeezing the clinching game's final rebound and then falling to the floor and laughing remains one of the league's endearing film clips. The footage perfectly captured Mutombo's fun spirit and competitiveness.

"I told the team that we were going to win, and that we were going to shock the world," he said. "The Sonics were not prepared for the dogfight."

60 Greatest Playoff Moments: Nuggets Upset Sonics

On this date 20 years ago, Denver upset the Seattle SuperSonics in their First Round playoff series.

Shortly after, as he won the first of his four Defensive Player of the Year awards, Mutombo was celebrated for the finger wag. A story about that: Mutombo said at first he simply shook his head after blocking a shot.

"But my message was not getting heard," he said. "I thought I had to do something else."

That evolved into the wag. Pretty soon, a wagging Mutombo began showing up on the nightly sports highlights, and courtside fans began wagging. It became a craze. Everyone bought into the act except those players who got snuffed.

"Players started to complain to the refs, 'Did you see he pointed a finger to my face.' And then when Rick Pitino was coaching Boston he filed a big complaint to the league. He's the one who made it an issue. David Stern told me I couldn't do that anymore. First they talked about suspending me -- what did I do wrong? And then they started fining me. That wagging cost me a lot of money."

And it also made him a lot of fans. That, and Mutombo's distinctive voice and sharp wit, created a celebrity.

In the late '90s there was perhaps no better interior defensive player. Mutombo took his rebounding and shot-blocking to the Hawks, where he had five solid seasons (three of them as an All-Star), and then to Philadelphia. He teamed with Allen Iverson to help the Sixers make an unexpected run to The Finals against Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant. After that season, the Sixers then hit the wall almost overnight and Mutombo bounced around, first in New Jersey, then with the Knicks. In New York, the new team president met with Mutombo on the first day of practice and had a request:

"Why don't you retire?" asked Isiah Thomas.

Mutombo was stunned and hurt by the insinuation that he was finished. He was 38 but felt much younger; again, his NBA career started at age 25. He landed in Houston where he backed up Yao Ming. When Yao dealt with injuries, Mutombo was a more than capable fill-in. Mutombo averaged double-figures in rebounding as a starter.

"He saved our season," said Ewing, then a Rockets' assistant coach. "Whenever we needed him to play more minutes, Dikembe was tremendous, better than what anyone thought he could be."

In 2007, when he was 40, Mutombo grabbed 22 rebounds against the Nuggets. Nobody 40 or older ever had that many. Then he retired at the end of the 2008-09 season. His important career averages: 10.3 rebounds, 2.8 blocks.

And then his real work was about to begin.

As a kid in Kinshasa, in a country then known as Zaire, Mutombo attended the Rumble in the Jungle between Muhammad Ali and George Foreman. That spectacle was soon lost when Zaire subsequently suffered from war, unrest and poverty. Samuel and Biamba Marie Mutombo kept the family close and made sure their 10 children were properly educated.

During this time, extended family and friends were in need of help, and the Mutombo house usually swelled with people. It was because of his parents, Dikembe said, who didn't know how to say no.

"They were welcoming people," Mutombo said. "They welcomed everybody. Even if you go to my dad's house today, there are people living there. Anybody who came to the house was family, those who needed a place to sleep or a place to eat. When you are raised in that type of environment, you learn to be that way as a person."

Trio of Big Men visit South Africa

Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning, and Dikembe Mutombo visit South Africa.

Many years later, after he married and had three kids, Mutombo adopted nieces and nephews, bringing them to the States and providing them an education. Even now, Mutombo has many more awards from social work than basketball, with honorary degrees from three universities, and he has served as spokesperson for several major charities. Among those with Mutombo fingerprints: Big Brothers and Sisters, Special Olympics, UNICEF and also Basketball Without Borders, where Mutombo annually does work as the league's official Global Ambassador, a position created specifically for him.

"I always wondered why my father gave me, his seventh child, his name," said Mutombo. "Did he feel that this was the one who could carry out his mission? He named me after himself and I've felt a responsibility to do that.

His Mona Lisa, however, is the hospital in Kinshasa that's named in memory of his mother. The region was medically underserved, especially for a place with high infant mortality rates. After years of fundraising and writing checks from his own account, the $29 million hospital opened in 2007 and has treated over 140,000 patients. The budget has gone from $3.5 million to $8.2 million.

"When I first went back to Congo to give clinics, I didn't think I was having an impact on society," he said. "I could give you a bag of rice today but you will still be hungry. I thought a hospital would give people hope.

Dikembe Mutombo is not only a friend to his people, but to all people.

– Nelson Mandela

"When my mother died, there were so many questions burning inside of me. Life is not about material things. What we wear and what we drive, we cannot take with us when we die. What is your legacy going to be? How many lives can you affect? I would ask myself: What would people say about me when I am no longer here? That all he did was play basketball and block shots? What did I do for the world?"

Mutombo has additional plans: He hopes to generate funds to upgrade the school system in Kinshasa, which he says is in a desperate stage.

"There are schools that don't have roofs," he said. "If it rains, class is over. When it's too sunny, kids get sick. My goal is to have roofs with solar power so kids can finish their education in classrooms with no electricity."

The Hall of Fame is getting someone who'll bring plenty to Springfield, Mass., besides basketball. But make no mistake; basketball is why Mutombo is headed there. The election caught Mutombo a bit by surprise, because he thought the Hall heavily favored those who scored points by the bucketful.

"Not too many people have been inducted for their defensive ability," he said. "I think I'm maybe the second or the third person to be inducted mainly for defense. I look at Bill Russell, I look at Dennis Rodman, and then there's myself, people who never averaged more than 20 points a game. We blocked those shots, grabbed the boards and took charges.

"That's why I'm so thankful for the committee to look at the game that way. This will teach a new generation, to know you can work hard and be a big contributor defensively and still be a Hall of Famer."

Ewing agreed.

"Dikembe was able to change many of the games in which he played," he said. "I remember he caught me with an elbow, right in the face, and Dikembe was always clearing people out with those sharp elbows. After the game I asked, 'Deke, why did you hit me?' He said, 'No, no, Patrick, You got it wrong. I didn't hit your face with my elbow. You hit my elbow with your face.' "

And then, Ewing laughed. He realized that while he'd caught a piece of Mutombo's elbow, Ewing was spared a bit of mercy in one sense: Mutombo had refused to hit his friend with the wagging finger.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here or follow him on Twitter.

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