Mutombo is still wagging his finger in 15th season

Friday November 17, 2006 4:32 PM

Mount Mutombo

Center is still standing tall -- and wagging his finger -- in his 15th season

Damien Pierce Staff Writer

HOUSTON -- Dikembe Mutombo can't remember the first time that he wagged his finger at a disgraced dunker.

Was it in Denver or Atlanta?

He'd have to do some research to be sure.

"I have to look back at all my tapes to figure out the first time that I did it," Mutombo said. "It might have started either my last season in Denver (1995-96) or my first year in Atlanta (1996-97). When I was in Denver, I was known for Mount Mutombo and 'The man cannot fly in the House of Mutombo.' I had that reputation going to the Atlanta Hawks and I think that is when the finger wag showed up."

No matter. He's really just glad to still be waving perhaps the longest index finger in the NBA.

Nearly 15 years after entering the league, Mount Mutombo is still standing tall. He is still swatting shots with those hands that are the size of catcher's mitts and dismissing would-be dunkers with his trademark finger wag.

The Rockets are planning to capture that famed wag in a Mutombo bobble finger Wednesday night when the Washington Wizards visit Toyota Center. Mutombo is just surprised to still be around to see it.

The four-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, who hasn't determined if the 2006-07 season will be his last, never imagined that he would still be trying to block shots after 14-plus seasons in the league.

He's even more surprised that the finger wag is as popular as ever.

"I feel like the finger wag is my trademark and I'm leaving a legacy with the game," Mutombo said. "I see preschool kids on the playground saying, 'I am Mutombo' and they are wagging their finger on the court. That's the cool thing. Your name will still there in the game for a long time. I want to be remembered as one of the great shot blockers of all time."

Mutombo is spending his final days in the league helping Yao Ming develop and moving up the list of all-time great shot blockers. He is third on the current list behind Hakeem Olajuwon and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Mutombo, however, is most famous for his finger wag. He has achieved legendary status among fans by wagging his long index finger after blocking a shot, as if to say, "Not in my house."

The latest display came against the San Antonio Spurs on Nov. 14 when he stuffed Tim Duncan.

"I love it when he does that," Rockets forward Kirk Snyder said of Mutombo's finger wag. "He is still a shot blocker. He might not do everything like he once did, but he still does that."

Mutombo insists his finger wag was never meant to taunt opponents who couldn't get past him. He said he developed it some time around 1996 after initially just shaking his head at defenders following a blocked shot.

He continued doing it over the years because of how fans reacted to it.

"The fans enjoyed it and other guys started doing it back to me," Mutombo said. "I heard some coaching staffs start complaining about it and ESPN picked it up from there. I was like, 'This is a cool thing to do.'"

The NBA hasn't always considered it so innocent.

After hearing complaints from coaches and players around the league, the NBA banned Mutombo from wagging his finger at opposing players in 1999.

Mount Mutombo was ready to erupt.

"I was very mad when that happened," Mutombo said. "I tried to call my friend, the commissioner (David Stern). I tried to tell the commissioner there was no way he could do that. I couldn't stop the finger wag because the fans were asking for it."

Mutombo gave in to the NBA's stance -- briefly. He said he was on his best behavior until he had a huge shot-swatting performance as a member of the New York Knicks during the 2003-04 season.

"We were playing against the Nets and I blocked 11 shots in the game," Mutombo said. "The fans kept waving their finger at me in the stands, so I was like, 'No, I got to bring it back.' I told the (league office), 'Look, you can do whatever you're going to do. You can fine me.' But a referee told me that if I didn't do it in a guy's face, I would be OK. I never knew I was doing it to a guy's face because that's not what I was about. So I started wagging my finger to the fans."

Just like that, the finger wag was back. The trouble with the gesture is that it gave other players suddenly a high desire to dunk on the center because of it.

After claiming that Michael Jordan had never dunked on him, his Airness responded with a slam over Mutombo in the 1997 NBA playoffs. Jordan wagged his finger at Mutombo after the dunk, creating what has become one of the well-known dunks in NBA history.

Other players are more amused by Mutombo's signature wag.

Snyder, who has been known to challenge shot blockers, said he was on the receiving end of a finger wag when he was a rookie with the Utah Jazz during the 2004-05 season.

"It's funny, man," Snyder said. "You almost want to get your shot blocked just to see him do it. That's the longest finger that I've ever seen."

Rockets guard Luther Head added: "I was looking forward to seeing it when I came to the Rockets. I grew up watching it on television and loved it when he did it."

Since Mutombo is in the twilight of his career, the 7-foot-2 center doesn't lift his right index finger as often these days. He is averaging 8.3 minutes per game, providing Yao Ming a breather when needed, and has blocked five shots through the first nine games.

He has, however, been given credit for helping Yao develop over the past three seasons with the Rockets.

"He makes me work hard," Yao said. "I can't push him around."

Mutombo said he hasn't decided if he'll be back to challenge shots -- or Yao -- next season.

He nearly didn't show up for his 15th season, but had a change of heart after playing well -- and blocking shots -- against some college players this summer at his alma mater, Georgetown. Mutombo plans on discussing the issue with his wife, Rose, during the All-Star break in Feb. and will consult Houston's coaching staff before making a final decision.

"Right now, I'm thinking about retiring or maybe playing one more year," Mutombo said. "I don't know. I'm waiting on February to come and then I'm going to talk to my wife and family. I'll see if my kids are ready for Daddy to come home and I'll talk to my coaches to see if I'm still valuable for this game."

He does have some unfinished business before retirement.

With 3,159 career blocked shots, Mutombo is third on the NBA's all-time blocked shot list and needs 31 more rejections to move past Abdul-Jabbar into the No. 2 spot.

He'd like to pass The Captain, but he doesn't have any insane illusions about hanging around until he catches Olajuwon. The Dream finished with 3,830 career blocked shots.

"No, I don't know if I can play that long," Mutombo said with a deep laugh. "I don't have to be the best one. I want to see my name among the top three and hopefully, before this season is over, I'll be in top two. That's my goal. If I can walk away as the No. 2 man, I will walk away a happy man."

He'll be wagging his finger until then.


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