After Hakeem Olajuwon he was perhaps the best African of all time in the NBA, making an art form from the blocks. Even at the age of 41, Dikembe Mutombo still had such a presence in the zone that many players did not move to the basket because they had fear of him. The zone was his territory. Or as he would call it: the House of Dikembe Mutombo. Mutombo is 52 years old today.
Shawn Kemp knows very well how great defensive player Mutombo was. Seattle SuperSonics' athletic monster was blocked a lot of times by African legend in the playoff series against Denver Nuggets. In none of the five games against the eight-placed Nuggets Kemp could score more than 19 points.
On the other hand, the joy was great on the side of the Nuggets. They were the first eighth-placed team to make the upset in 1994 against the top seed team, despite missing a superstar. But Dikembe Mutombo was a star of the series - he was a key player who destroyed Kemp defensively. The Congolese recorded 31 blocks in five games - a record that survived to this day. The victory against the Sonics was also the birth of the second African star in the NBA. In addition, Mutombo's Signature Move became a classic. The Finger Wag is still one of the most distinctive gestures in league history.
The fact that Mutombo would even make money with the orange leather was difficult to forecast. In 1988 he came to Washington to study at Georgetown University. The Congolese was speaking only broken English, and actually, he wanted to study medicine and become a doctor. Hoyas coach John Thompson interrupted in between and obliged the 22-year-old to join the basketball team.
Thompson's dream: Mutombo, together with colleague Alonzo Mourning will follow in the footsteps of Patrick Ewing, who left college in 1985 to play for New York Knicks. In the regular season, the plan went on well. Mourning and Mutombo dominated under the baskets, and the Hoyas won the Big East Conference.
"They are like a big wall, a wall with arms blocking the poor shooters, and even if the opponents are still successful with their fakes, they are still blocked," the L.A. Times wrote in February 1989.
The fans celebrated their "Rejection Row" and spread out at every home game the poster with the silhouette of a blocking hand.
Let's do the finger wag!
Mutombo will spend another two years under Thompson in Georgetown before deciding for the NBA. The Congolese did not have to be patient for a long time on the draft evening. He was drafted by Denver Nuggets as the fourth pick. And Mutombo did what he does best in the first year: playing defense. On average, Mount Mutombo had 16.6 points and 12.3 rebounds in just over 38 minutes. Nevertheless, the Nuggets were still bad and missed the playoffs.
It took until 1994 until Mutombo saw the playoffs with the Nuggets for the first time. It was the series against the Sonics - and suddenly Mutombo was the new star in Denver. Totally unexpected. His finger Wag run in all highlight shows at ESPN and Co. up and down.
Why did Mutombo suddenly start wiggling his forefinger and then plotting "not in my house" towards the enemy?
"All the other NBA players with good stats had their Signature Move, only I didn't have any, so I figured I need that too," Mutombo later explained. He also soon received his first signature sneakers.
1995 was Mutombo's individually most successful season. He was NBA leader for the second time in a row in the blocks (3.9), and was invited for the second time after 1992 to the All-Star Game and also won for the first time the Defensive Player Of The Year Award. In the playoffs Denver played against the Spurs, who defeated them, they were too strong. In the following year, it was even worse: after two playoff seasons, the Nuggets missed the playoffs - and Mutombo signed as a free agent in Atlanta. Even with the Hawks, then a 30-year-old was still the defensive exception. After the regular season, he won the trophy for the best defender of the league for the second time.
In the playoffs, however, it was not enough for more than the second round, Michael Jordan and the Bulls were better in five games. In the years to come, this will happen again. Mutombo himself continued to stand out from the average Hawks collective, once again winning the DPOY Award and, aside from 1999, in all of his years in Atlanta, was an All-Star.
More than basketball
Off the court, Mutombo had other worries, the civil war in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In the summer of 1998, rebels were trying to capture the capital city of Kinshasa - where Mutombo's family also lived. The mother of the center was suffering from a high fever and had to go to the hospital at that time, but they send her back home. There was neither enough staff nor electricity. Shortly thereafter, the 63-year-old died, while Mutombo as vice president of the players' association tried to prevent the upcoming lockout. Days after that were probably the worst of his life. Of course, he wanted to go home immediately to be present at the funeral of his mother.
But his father contradicted him: "He said I should stay in the US, as he does not want another loss in the family so soon after my mother's death," Mutombo said.
After that, he was not the "old Mutombo", and by the trade deadline in 2001, he was traded to Philadelphia. In return, 76ers sent the injured Theo Ratliff to Atlanta. With that year's Finals, the Sixers wanted to keep up with the Spurs and Lakers on the five. Mount Mutombo was supposed to keep Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan if it should be the case. And Mutombo did it very well, he cleaned up under its own basket, collecting 12.4 rebounds on average and blocking 2.5 throws per game. The Congolese did not have to score at all, because an Allen Iverson in MVP-shape shoots every ball on the basket. The throws that did not go in, Mutombo grabbed reliably (4.6 offensive rebounds on average).
In the finals, they won the first game against favored Lakers, and Mutombo played great against O'Neal and Co. with five blocks. After that, the Diesel broke down over him. Philly did not win a single game anymore, Shaq was voted finals MVP. The fact that Mutombo was awarded for the fourth time as the best defender was only a small consolation.
Back to the finals
Two years later, Mutombo came again dangerously close to the ring, but in the New Jersey Nets jersey, he was no longer in the form of 2001. Against Boston, he injured himself in the first game of the second round and must wait until the finals. There he could not put the decisive impulse, overall he stands only 11.5 minutes on average in the field. The Nets lose 2-4. After a one-year at the Knicks, the 38-year-old still wanted to reach the ring and joined the Rockets. In Houston, the stars were called Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, and Mutombo should give the backup for the Chinese giant.
But by 2008, the talented Rockets were not able to survive the first round. At the beginning of 2009, Tracy McGrady injured hard, and his season was over. Mutombo was reactivated almost from the fast retirement, completed nine games, and becomes the "father" of the team. The Rockets won 22 games in a row and grab against the Trail Blazers the first playoff series since 1997. In the first game, Mutombo showed with nine rebounds and two blocks that he is still able to play well at 42 years of age. In the second game, however, the Congolese was injured - the knee was broken. In tears, he announced his retirement a few weeks later. After 18 seasons in the NBA. The Rockets almost made the upset against the Lakers and even forced them into a game seven, but playoffs for Houston were over after that game.
House of Mutombo
Mutombo has shaped the NBA with his defensive-oriented game. He raised the block to an art form, even Michael Jordan was tempted by the Congolese and wiggled his finger after a dunk over Mutombo. In the meantime, the superstars of the league were even competing who will dunk over the center first. The 52-year-old ranks second in the block's all-time list, only Hakeem Olajuwon has sent the ball back to its sender more often. And one thing is clear: nobody comes so easily into the House of Mutombo.