Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo
June 25, 1966 in Kinshasa, DR Congo
Georgetown University (1988-1991)
Denver Nuggets, 4th Pick Overall, 1991 NBA Draft
7-2 ; Weight:
Deke, Mount Mutombo
- NBA (1991-2009)
G - 1196
FG% - .518
3PFG% - .000
FT% - .684
Points - 11,729
PPG - 9.8
Rebounds - 12,359
RPG - 10.3
Assists - 1,240
APG - 1.0
Blocks - 3,289
BPG - 2.8
Steals - 494
SPG - 0.4
4 x NBA Defensive Player Of The Year, 1 x All-NBA Second Team, 2 x All-NBA Third Team, 8 x All-NBA First Team, 4 x All-NBA Defensive First Team, 2 x All-NBA Defensive Second Team, All-NBA Rookie First Team, 5 x NBA Blocks Leader, 4 x NBA Rebounding Leader, AP All-America Third Team.
The Mutombo story begins in Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire. In that sprawling city of 2.5 million people. One of nine children of a school principal, Mutombo lived in a comfortable, middle-class home and attended the school where his father worked. His parents were dedicated to both education and religious ideals, and the whole family attended church together each Sunday.
All of Mutombo's family members are tall, but Dikembe grew even taller than the rest. In grade school he towered over his peers. By high school age he was nearing seven feet in height and showed no sign of stopping there. Like his other brothers, he enjoyed athletics, but as a teen he played soccer and practiced martial arts as his specialties. "I knew what the NBA was," Mutombo told the Rocky Mountain News in 1992. "I knew it was professional basketball since I was kid, but I didn't want to play basketball until I was 18 because I just didn't like it. I didn't like the game. I thought it was too physical. My parents ended up by forcing me to play basketball. That's why I always thank them a lot."
Finally, the teenaged Mutombo was so tall and strong that his father and older brother insisted he try basketball. Reluctantly, he agreed. On his very first basketball outing, he slipped during a jumping drill and opened a gash in his chin, leaving a scar that is still visible today. More determined than ever not to continue with basketball, he clashed with his parents and brother in a heated argument. They finally prevailed, and he returned to the court. "I'm so proud of my father.... [He knew what] was going to be the best for his son," Mutombo recalled in the Rocky Mountain News. "By choosing to play basketball, I end up becoming, I should say, rich."
Not only did Mutombo lack the long years of youthful preparation that go into the creation of an NBA player, he also lacked the proper conditions under which to play. The courts he learned on, he told the Rocky Mountain News, were "always outdoor. Cement courts. If you fell down, you got make sure that you get up. If you don't get up, we see you next season. That's the kind of basketball I play." Even after he won a position on Zaire's national team at age 19, he still played on concrete outdoor courts that were dimly lit by clusters of electric light bulbs. The biggest crowd that saw him play in those years numbered about 2,000.
Both Mutombo and his brother Ilo began to consider what basketball might do for them careerwise. Mutombo wanted to be a doctor; he was a good student with high grades at the Institute Boboto in Zaire. After playing some time for the Zaire national team--and travelling across Africa for games--he approached some visiting American college coaches about the possibility of studying in the United States. The coaches offered a little advice, but Herman Henning, a U.S. Embassy official stationed in Zaire, made a bigger impact. Henning saw Mutombo play for the Zaire national team and offered to help. Henning thought Mutombo might prosper in an American college under a patient coach who had also played center.
Georgetown University's John Thompson came to mind immediately, and in 1987 Dikembe Mutombo found himself on a plane to the United States, with a scholarship to attend Georgetown. At the same time, his brother earned a scholarship to Southern Indiana University, also to play basketball.
A less ambitious man might have been overwhelmed by the odds that faced Mutombo. He could speak French--and a number of other languages and African dialects--but not a word of English when he arrived at Georgetown. He had little knowledge of basic basketball strategy and even less finesse on the court. And during his first year in America, one of his favourite brothers back in Zaire was diagnosed with a fatal brain cancer. The numerous pressures on Mutombo were intense, but he persevered. He studied English for six hours each day with a tutor, then attended his college classes. He played intramural basketball and began his tutelage under the demanding Thompson. For moral support, he phoned his brother in Indiana; he could not afford to call his parents in Africa.
As a sophomore at Georgetown, Mutombo mostly sat on the bench. The starting center that season was a freshman phenomenon named Alonzo Mourning. Mutombo was learning the game, however, and by his junior year he began to see more playing time. The major boost to his career came when Thompson decided to use him and Mourning at the same time. The two players became known as the "Twin Towers," and Mutombo began to put some creditable numbers on the board. As a junior he averaged 10.7 points with 10.5 rebounds per game. He led the Hoyas in field goal percentage (.709) and was fourth in the nation for blocked shots, with 128 on the season. In his senior year, Mutombo was named Big East defensive player of the year after he once again ranked fourth nationally in blocked shots and came in sixth in rebounds, with 12.2 per game.
Although the relationship between Mutombo and Thompson was sometimes stormy, a deep bond developed between the two. In 1991, during Mutombo's senior season, the Hoya coach called his African star a "filling station," the type of player who could keep a coach invigorated. Thompson told the Washington Post that Mutombo "has come out of a different way of living, a different system of life. It's easier to communicate and to deal with him without him being fragile." Thompson added: "He has a refreshing freshness about him ... because he has not been Americanized since he was in elementary school, with somebody recruiting him or somebody trying to convince him that he's the best thing that's happened to the game since the tennis shoe was invented."
Mutombo had few aspirations to an NBA career prior to his senior year at Georgetown. He had majored in political science and linguistics and had undertaken internships with a U.S. congressman and a computer programming firm in preparation for a public service career. "I did not think I would be a professional basketball player," Mutombo told Sports Illustrated. "Even after my junior year at Georgetown, I did not think this. Then coach John Thompson brought Bill Russell in to talk with me. Bill Russell. Who knows more basketball than Bill Russell? He won 11 NBA championships, had to ask God to give him another finger for 11 rings. Bill Russell told me, 'You can do it.' He was there for five days. He talked to me for three, four hours a day. The man is so smart. He convinced me I could play."
Others were convinced that Mutombo could play professionally as well. He was expected to be chosen very high in the 1991 NBA draft, despite the fact that most scouts thought he would take several years to develop an NBA-caliber game. "Can Mutombo--an endearing, comical, talkative, intelligent 25- year-old, become an NBA star?" asked Rocky Mountain News reporter Clay Latimer just prior to the draft. "He only has two moves on offense: a crude hook and a thunderous dunk. His passing, though, is immensely better than a year ago. He can block shots, too; he blocked 'em at Georgetown with his hands, his elbow, even his armpit.... And the upward curve of his development steepened last year." In a glittering draft ceremony at Madison Square Garden late in June of 1991, Mutombo was chosen in the first round (fourth overall) by the Nuggets, who seemed thrilled that he was still available when their turn came to choose.
Mutombo was equally thrilled, mainly because his parents had flown from Zaire to attend the draft-day events with him. After his name was chosen, he embraced both parents enthusiastically and told reporters: "I think now they'll see me much more often." He also told the Rocky Mountain News: "I've been to Denver and I love the place. I can't wait to go back and meet more of the people and see the mountains.... I am a great defensive player. This will bring defense back to Denver."
Selected fourth overall by the Denver Nuggets in the 1991 NBA Draft, Mutombo's impact was immediate. As a rookie, he was selected for the All-Star team and averaged 16.6 points, 12.3 rebounds, and nearly three blocks per game. A cornerstone in the Nuggets' frontcourt, Mutombo became one of the league's best defensive players, regularly putting up big rebound and block numbers for five years with the club while averaging about 11 points a game. The team lacked a quality supporting cast, however, and at its best won only 42 games. In Mutombo's third season, however, Denver pulled off a major playoff upset by stunning the top-seeded Seattle SuperSonics in the first round, becoming the first eighth seed to win an NBA playoff series. At the end of Game 5, Mutombo fell to the ground, holding the ball over his head in a moment of joy. Mutombo's defensive presence was the key to the upset victory; his total of 31 blocks remains a record for a five-game series. The following season, he received the NBA Defensive Player of the Year Award.
After the 1995–96 NBA season, Mutombo's contract with the Nuggets expired, and he signed a free agent contract with the Atlanta Hawks. Mutombo continued to put up excellent defensive numbers with his new team. Joining the Hawks made him more noticeable, helping him win two more Defensive Player of the Year awards and earn several All-Defensive Team selections. He also became fairly well known for his signature finger waggle, which he would point in a player's direction after he had blocked that player's shot. During the lockout-shortened 1999 season, he was the NBA's IBM Award winner, a player of the year award determined by a computerized formula.
The Hawks traded Mutombo to the Eastern Conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers in February 2001 for their injured center Theo Ratliff, as the Sixers needed a replacement stellar big man to compete with Western Conference powers Tim Duncan or Shaquille O'Neal, should they reach the finals. He earned his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award that season and also earned a trip to the NBA Finals, where the 76ers lost to the Los Angeles Lakers four games to one. A free-agent, he re-signed with the Sixers after the season. While his statistics were comparable in the 2001–02 season, the Sixers dealt him to the New jersey
Nets, fearing that his game had deteriorated.
The Nets were looking for a more physical big man to compete with Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan, two of the best big men in the league who also led championship-caliber teams in the West. But Mutombo spent most of that season with a nagging injury that limited him to just 24 games. He was generally unable to play in the playoffs, typically serving as a sixth man during the Nets' second consecutive Finals run.
In October 2003, the Nets bought out the remainder of his contract and subsequently waived him. He signed a two-year deal with the New York Knicks a few days later. The Knicks later traded him to the Chicago Bulls in a package for Jamal Crawford. He never played a game for the Bulls, and they dealt him to the Houston Rockets in the 2004 offseason.
Mutombo most recently played as a reserve behind Yao Ming, forming one of the NBA's most productive center combos. In his first season with the Rockets (2004–05), Mutombo averaged 15.2 MPG, 5.3 RPG, and 4.0 PPG. The Rockets lost in the first round against the Dallas Mavericks. In the 2007–08 season, Mutombo yet again received extensive playing time when Yao went down with a broken bone and averaged double digits in rebounding as a starter. The additional playing time gave Mutombo the opportunity to continue accruing blocked shots at a record-setting pace. On January 10, 2008, in a 102–77 rout of the Los Angeles Lakers, Mutombo recorded 5 blocked shots and surpassed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in total career blocked shots. Mutombo is currently second only to Hakeem Olajuwon. Also, on March 2, 2007, in a win over the Denver Nuggets, at the age of 41, Mutombo became the oldest player in NBA history to record more than 20 rebounds in a game with 22. After contemplating retirement and spending the first part of 2008 as an unsigned unrestricted free agent, on December 31, 2008, Mutombo signed with the Houston Rockets for the remainder of the 2008–2009 season. He said that the 2009 season would be his "farewell tour" and his last.
In Game 1 of Houston's first round playoff series against Portland, Mutombo played for 18 minutes and had nine rebounds, two blocks, and a steal.
In the 2nd quarter of Game 2, Mutombo landed awkwardly and had to be carried from the floor. After the game, he said, "it’s over for me for my career" and that surgery would be needed. It was later confirmed that the quadriceps tendon of his left knee was ruptured in Game 2. Mutumbo announced retirement on April 23, 2009, after 18 seasons in the NBA.