A lot of current NBA fans probably know Dikembe Mutombo best as the towering guy in a generic basketball uniform running around swatting cereal boxes in an insurance commercial.
But for folks of a certain age or a more historical bent, Mutombo ranks as one of the league’s most dominating and entertaining defensive players ever. Even if the details of his four NBA Defensive Player of the Year award, tied with former Pistons anchor Ben Wallace for the most all-time, were fuzzy, they surely remember his trademark finger wag.
The 7-foot-2, 245-pound Mutombo would swat a shot, then extend an index finger and wave it back and forth in admonishment, occasionally adding in that scratchy “Iron Giant” voice, “No, no, no!”
He won his DPOY trophies with Denver in 1995, with Atlanta in 1997 and 1998 and at age 34 in 2001, when he got traded to Philadelphia in February and helped the Sixers reach the NBA Finals. Anyone who watched the championship series against the Lakers probably remembers slo-motion footage of Shaquille O’Neal repeatedly spinning and slamming an upraised elbow into Mutombo’s jaw. (“Not many could take that,” Mutombo said.)
A product of Georgetown, eight-time All-Star and six-time All-Defense selection in 18 seasons, Mutombo ranks 20th in NBA history in rebounds (12,359) and second in blocks (3,289), which became an official stat in 1973-74. Perhaps most impressively, he was a two-time winner of the league’s Walter J. Kennedy Citizenship Award for his humanitarian and healthcare work back home in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Mutombo was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015. But he said he might miss the Class of 2020’s delayed enshrinement May 14 because his youngest son’s high school graduation is set for the next day.
He took time away last week from his NBA ambassador duties, charitable work and business ventures such as Mutombo Coffee to speak with NBA.com. Among the topics, that finger wag and the man who shaped him as a defensive dominator. (Editor’s Note: The following 1-on-1 conversation has been condensed and edited.)
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NBA.com: Looking back, how do you feel about your career and the level to which you reached your potential?
Dikembe Mutombo: I was playing with a goal in mind, and what I wanted to accomplish before I would leave the game. Being able to accomplish that, I was so proud of my success. Every time I came to the court, I studied the statistics. I knew where I stood on the defensive end and the history. I knew where I was going. My goal was to become one of the best defensive players in NBA history. I’ve been told I accomplished that.
How much did you study your opponents to best defend against them?
I studied many hours. The entire team we were playing against and any outstanding players I might have to defend. The most important thing was to recognize their timing – when a guy would put the ball on the floor and when he’d jump to come to the rim. If you cannot recognize that, you can miss him or even have your hand get broken. Or you end in foul trouble. I learned these things from Bill Russell.
He was my big mentor coming to the NBA because he was a friend of [Georgetown] coach John Thompson. After I was drafted [by Denver in 1991], he talked to me about the NBA, things I would have to do to dominate the game defensively. Because he saw something in me I didn’t see. It was the first time for me to meet him, but coach Thompson spoke so much about him, almost every day in practice. He would tell us he only knew one person better than us and that was Bill Russell, because he won 11 rings for 10 fingers.
What sort of tips did he share with you?
He told me if I could dominate defensively I had a great chance to be part of the history of the league. He said timing was more important. And to not be afraid to challenge your opponent when they come to the basket. Being able to block the shot and go get that ball, or block it in the direction of your teammates where they can recover the ball, not block it back to the other team.
The best shot blockers can end up like Robert Clemente, the baseball Hall of Famer whose throwing arm in right field was so strong he rarely got tested by base runners. Do you recall shooters who shied away from you in the lane?
Thousands of them. They said, “I’m not going in there.” Being able to get in the opponents’ minds, that was one of the greatest things I was able to do in my career.
We’re going to assume Bill Russell did not teach you the finger wag.
[Long laugh] No, no, no, that’s something that came naturally. I don’t remember where. All I know is it happened in Denver, but I don’t know which particular game or which date.
You’re OK with that as your trademark?
They love it to this day. Twelve years after I left the game.
It was a sort of sign language for trash talking. Did opponents get angry with you?
Yes they did.
And Jordan gave it back to you once.
Ohhh, now, there we go. People don’t remember how many times I got him.
Who stands out among today’s top defenders?
Embiid. Gobert. Capela. Ben Simmons.
Who’s more important, a rim protector or a perimeter defender?
There’s nothing like a good rim protector, because when they come to the basket, very few can protect the rim. And it’s not easy to protect the rim the way the game is played today, where the bigs extend all the way to 3-point.
Some recent big men like fellow Georgetown alum Roy Hibbert felt the NBA was trying to legislate them out of the game with all the 3-point focus.
I think I would have adjusted to this system. And I’d still be getting blocked shots. I was an offensive threat as well, never forget that. I shot the ball very well in my career with my hook shot, always being around the paint. I was not trained shooting the 3.
Here are the Top 5 this week on the 2020-21 Defensive Player Ladder:
(All stats through Sunday, April 25)
1. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
If this were the MVP Ladder, a measure commonly used to rank candidates would be to see how much their teams sag when the star is out. Well, Philadelphia just played – and lost – four consecutive games while Simmons was sidelined. In that stretch, Sixers opponents averaged 119.8 points on 50% shooting, including 38.5% on 3-pointers. Then Simmons comes back and all is well again defensively, with OKC – yes, it was against the lackluster Thunder – scoring 90 points, missing 23 of 30 3-pointers and turning over the ball 30 times. Those fueled 35 points for Philadelphia in a game it won by 31. ”I see a lot of things that most guys don’t see on the floor,” said Simmons, who had three steals with 12 points on while playing less than 23 minutes.
— Philadelphia 76ers (@sixers) April 27, 2021
2. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
An offensive brain cramp might cost a guy’s team a good shot or an easy basket, but a defensive one can cost you a game. That’s what happened to this season’s DPOY favorite Monday night against lowly Minnesota, and it was a big enough “Doh!” moment that Gobert slips a rung this week. The Utah center blamed himself for inexplicably leaving Timberwolves guard D’Angelo Russell unattended for the easy layup that stuck the Jazz with their second consecutive loss. It was, after all, Gobert who called the switch that had teammate Mike Conley going outside to guard Wolves big man Karl-Anthony Towns. Then, er, Gobert decided to join them. “It’s totally on me,” Gobert said. “It’s one of those plays, when you watch a replay, you just feel dumb.”
D-LO. GAME ❄️ pic.twitter.com/Xonm7TkMIP
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 27, 2021
3. Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
In the Heat’s vaunted “culture,” individual awards don’t matter much when they’re knocking around .500. But they seem willing to make an exception in touting Adebayo’s defense. “I think Bam is one of the most unique defenders in the league, can legit guard one through five,” coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He can anchor a very reliable defense. And he can take on different challenges and he has the IQ to be able to execute multiple schemes, where it’s not just the switching scheme that people think that he is involved with.” Fellow ace Miami defender Jimmy Butler lauds Adebayo for attending to his matchups while providing lots of help D.
— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) April 24, 2021
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Eleven times in the 38-year history of the DPOY award, the honor has gone to the fellow who won it the previous season. Might Antetokounmpo make it 12, since he already has twinned a pair of MVP awards (the parallel stats on that one are 17 times in 65 years)? Could be tough in part because of the standards he set for himself. Foes are shooting 41.6% against him, a drop of 5.5% from their normal rate – but last season they were at 36.2%. The Greek Freak’s defensive rating since the All-Star break is 105.1, better than the Bucks’ 109.5 when he’s off the floor. But his 2019-20 numbers were 97.4 and 105.1.
5. Myles Turner, Indiana Pacers
Having to play without the league’s best shot blocker in 2020-21 – Turner is out indefinitely with a tear in the plantar plate of his right big toe – as well as Domantas Sabonis (sore back) has given the Pacers a chance to go small. They have won three straight heading into Tuesday’s game vs. Portland, and are 7-6 in the games Turner has sat (22-25 when he plays). But compensating with offense and throwing an unexpected look at opponents may only work for so long, with the Blazers and Nets up next.
The Next Five
(In no particular order)
Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia 76ers
- His 37.7% DFG% is the NBA’s stingiest, a sure sign of his peskiness.
MATISSE STEAL. BEN SLAM. WOW. THAT'S HOW YOU END THE HALF 😤😤😤 pic.twitter.com/RqDOVwu30K
— NBC Sports Philadelphia (@NBCSPhilly) April 27, 2021
OG Anunoby, Toronto Raptors
- Simmons-worthy, 1-through-5 guarding ability.
Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee Bucks
- Angling for a third All-Defense selection.
Mike Conley, Utah Jazz
- His 0.182 defensive win shares, 99.7 DRtg better than teammate Gobert’s.
Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
- Attitude and eye test make his case more than numbers.
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