Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo entered the league as a 25 year old rookie in 1991 yet still managed to play well past all of his younger classmates. Drafted by the Denver Nuggets with the fourth overall pick out of Georgetown Mutombo was billed as the next great defensive center to enter the league.
He was all knees and elbows and looked far from graceful, but it did not take long for everyone to realize he had the discipline, and timing to be an all time great shot blocker. If you watched every second of Mutombo’s NBA career and counted every time he left his feet on a pump fake you would still have fingers left over on your first hand.
In addition to his defensive talents early in his career Dikembe wanted to be a scorer. I still do not know how he managed to average 16.6 points per game his rookie season. His go to move was basically to pivot around repeatedly until the defender became so disoriented that he had a clear shot at the rim. Dikembe may have been the last person to realize he did not have the coordination or touch to be a great scorer, but after he gave up on leading his team in scoring and focused completely on defense he became a force.
He may have been the first healthy player in the history of the NBA to see his scoring average decline for four straight seasons after his rookie campaign. However in the second, third and fourth seasons of that four year stretch he lead the league in blocked shots averaging 4.1, 3.9 and an insane 4.5 blocks per game during that stretch.
As a defender Dikembe was more than a shot blocker. He was Mt. Mutombo, who stood 5,287 feet and two inches high, the centerpiece of the Nuggets defense. He made the leap from good to great during the 1994 playoffs where he defended the explosive Shawn Kemp one on one in crunch time and did an incredible job. Of course we all remember the final moments of that series as Dikembe grabbed the final rebound and fell back into the lane with a look of pure jubilation on his face. That image still represents the highpoint of this franchise for over 20 years.
Mutombo garnered the first NBA defensive Player of the Year award for any Denver Nuggets player the next season, 1994-95. He would win the award three more times and become one of two players to be four time winners (Ben Wallace), but he would not win the award again as a Nugget. Bernie Bickerstaff made the mind numbing decision to allow Mutombo to walk after the 1995-96 season choosing financial flexibility over having the best defensive center of the decade and Dikembe signed with the Atlanta Hawks. He continued to do what he did best, defend, block shots and inspire his teammates and even escorted Allen Iverson to the 2001 NBA finals as a Philadelphia 76er.
Last night Dikembe’s now 18 year career apparently came to a close. While fighting with Greg Oden for a rebound Mutombo’s knee gave out and he fell to the floor in pain. While he lay on the court surrounded by his teammates the announcers watched the replay and marveled at how even after the injury and on his way to the floor he still did everything he could to prevent Oden from collecting the rebound.
I will always remember his awkward post moves, his finger wag (that was so good the NBA had to keep allowing him to do it after the cracked down on taunting as long as he did it to the crowd and not to an opposing player), the way he would ask opponents, “Don’t you get cable?” after blocking a shot, Jordan’s free throw with his eyes closed as a tribute to Dikembe for not allowing MJ to dunk on him, the legendary who wants to sex Mutombo story (I remember hearing a first hand account of the episode on the Jim Rome show years ago) and above all his celebration after game five of the 1994 playoff victory over the SuperSonics.
He may have only been a Nugget for five seasons, but he was a great player to cheer for and an even better person off the court. I am sorry his career had to end this way, but I know it will allow him to do even more to help people. Even with his success on the hardwood, aiding others is what he was put on this earth to do.
Update: Chris Sheridan has the tale of Mutombo’s fight to keep his patented finger wag.
Update No. 2: Henry at TrueHoop has an indescribably awesome video of Dikembe’s Rocket teammates imitating him plus a handful of great links.