Rockets set to honor Mutombo in possible last season

Tuesday March 25, 2008 3:30 PM

Rockets set to honor Mutombo in possible last season

Minnesota at Houston, Wednesday, 7:30 p.m.

Damien Pierce Staff Writer

-- Before leaving the practice court on Tuesday afternoon, Dikembe Mutombo was asked to characterize the upcoming celebration that will be taking place in his honor.

The veteran center will be recognized for his 17-year career during halftime of Wednesday's game against Minnesota even though he hasn't decided if he'll retire following this season.

With that being the case, a question had to be asked: Is the celebration really a retirement ceremony?

Mutombo mulled over that question before coming up with a clever definition for the occasion.

"It is a celebration of Dikembe Mutombo's career as it's getting close to saying goodbye to the game," Mutombo laughed. "Am I putting it correctly or not?"

Good thing he cleared that up.

Regardless, Mutombo will be honored during halftime Wednesday night as he approaches what could be the conclusion of his impressive career.

NBA commissioner David Stern and Rockets owner Leslie Alexander are expected to recognize one of the game's great big men and fans attending the game will receive a foam finger, depicting Mutombo's famed finger wag.

The halftime tribute has been in the works since Mutombo, the NBA's oldest player at 41, revealed before training camp that the 2007-08 season would serve as his farewell tour.

But with less than a month remaining in his 17th season, Mutombo hasn't decided if the celebration is a retirement ceremony or a festivity near the end of a remarkable career. He is considering a possible return next season.

"People are trying to get me to say, 'OK, I'm coming back,'" Mutombo said. "I don't want to say that right now. I want to play this year and go home. If I change my mind, I'll let you know. At some point, I have to come to the decision that I'm going to walk away from this game. If it doesn't happen today or tomorrow, some day it has to happen."

Whether he's playing his final month in the NBA or not, the magnitude of Wednesday's event has forced Mutombo to reflect on a career that is nearing its end.

Mutombo didn't intend to play basketball when he arrived at Georgetown as a pre-med student in 1988. But after getting a sales pitch from former Hoyas coach John Thompson, Mutombo tried out for the team.

Few need a recap of what followed after that. After becoming one of the nation's best big men in college, the 7-foot-2 center became the No. 4 overall pick in the 1991 NBA Draft and quickly developed into one of the league's greatest defensive players.

Mutombo made eight trips to the NBA's All-Star Game and was named the league's Defensive Player of the Year four times.

"My career has never been defined as an offensive player," Mutombo said. "Hopefully, by the time I retire, no one will talk about my offense. Everyone will talk about me being one of the great shot blockers and great defenders in this game. That's how I want to be remembered. If you want to talk about me scoring 10 points or two points, that's fine. But I helped my team win."

Mutombo will be remembered for his shot blocking more than anything else.

Last season, the Rockets reserve center surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for second place on the league's all-time blocked shots lists. With 3,260 career blocks and counting, Mutombo sits behind only Rockets great Hakeem Olajuwon.

Regardless of whether he returns next season or not, Mutombo doesn't expect to track down Olajuwon in the record books.

"I want to be remembered as one of the greatest defensive players to ever play this game," Mutombo said. "Right now, as we talk about it, I see myself falling into that class with Bill Russell, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, (Patrick) Ewing, (Alonzo) Mourning, David Robinson, Gary Payton and all those guys that were considered being a stopper. I feel like I'm in that class. There will be kids coming into the NBA that want to follow the foot steps of Dikembe Mutombo -- being a great shot blocker and a great defender."

As one of the game's most feared shot blockers, Mutombo developed a calling card that has become as well known as Michael Jordan's hanging tongue. The center created his trademark finger wag, waving what may be the NBA's longest index finger from side to side after rejecting a shot.

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 shaking his head at defenders following a blocked shot. The NBA initially banned the signature move, but relaxed the rule after the center convinced the league he was doing it for the fans.

"I feel like the finger wag is my trademark and I'm leaving a legacy with the game," Mutombo said last season. "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's greatest achievement, however, is his humanitarian work. The center created the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation in an effort to improve living conditions in his native homeland, the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The country's infant mortality rate is 9.6 percent, far exceeding the 0.6 percent in the United States.

During George W. Bush's State of the Union Address in 2007, Mutombo was recognized for building and funding the $29 million Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital in Kinshasha -- Mutombo's hometown. The hospital is named after the center's late mother.

Later in the year, Mutombo was inducted into the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame.

"He's obviously a person that has done as much off the court and he's done on it," Rockets coach Rick Adelman said. "You just have to admire him. He's a remarkable person. I've been around two guys like that -- him and Vlade (Divac in Sacramento). They both think about other people."

Mutombo was expecting this season to serve as his farewell tour. Despite having a disappointing finish to the 2006-07 season, Mutombo returned after Olajuwon and others urged him to play one more season. He played little over the first three months, serving instead as a mentor to the Rockets' younger players and a veteran leader in the locker room.

That role was altered when Yao Ming was lost for the season with a fractured right foot. Needing the center's size and defensive presence, Mutombo replaced Yao in the Rockets' starting five. In 14 starts, the center has averaged 3.5 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.9 blocks.

Now, with his steady play and influence in the locker room, Mutombo's teammates have been imploring the center to extend his career.

"We get on him every day, like when he air balled a shot a few games ago (against Phoenix) or sits out in practice with his ice bags on," Rockets forward Shane Battier said. "We say it out of love. And we tell him, 'Hey, no matter where you go after this, you're not going to replicate this. You're going to miss the guys giving you a hard time.' I think he knows that. He enjoys it more than anybody. I don't know if he's coming back. Knowing him and knowing his heart, its' going to be very difficult for him to sign those retirement papers."

He's made enough of an impact that opposing players are hopeful that he is leaving after this season.

"I'm glad Dikembe is leaving because he's beat me up over the years," Tim Duncan, San Antonio's All-Star forward, said. "He's an absolutely great defender and I hated playing against him. But he's such a great guy. He's done so much for not only the NBA, but abroad as well. I'm glad he's getting to go out the way he wants to go out."

He might, of course, hold off his final goodbye for one more season.

With all the festivities planned for Wednesday's game, Mutombo said he is still trying to determine whether he'll be back next season. The Rockets want the center to return because of his influence in the locker room and Mutombo has had enough fun over the course of his 17th season that he's considering playing again.

But Mutombo will have to convince his family if he wants to suit up for another run through the NBA schedule. Before the season, the center assured his wife and six children that he would be spending more time at home. He'd have to break that promise to return to the Rockets.

On top of that, Mutombo isn't sure how his body will hold up for another season.

"It makes it tough (to leave since my teammates want me back), but I wonder if they know, night after night when I go home, what my body feels like," Mutombo said. "I wish they could know about it. Sometimes, I don't show all my pain and fatigue in practice because I'm not that type of person. But it's tough to play in this league that long and to be 41-years old and to keep going up and down with sprints."

Until he makes that ultimate decision, Mutombo
is taking in every moment as if it is his last. After all, it could be.

"Right now, I want to enjoy this as being my last year," Mutombo said. "But if I change my mind, it's my choice. It's hard to say right now. I want to enjoy this year. I'm enjoying it for the fact that we're having a great year and set a great record (with a 22-game winning streak). Now, we're in the top four in the conference. Those are things we haven't done in a long time. I'm glad to see that happening. Right now, I'm just enjoying it."