More than an hour late for an NBATV interview with his coach-turned-mentor, Dikembe Mutombo ducked his head under a doorway through a small practice court at McDonough Gymnasium and approached Georgetown hoops patriarch John Thompson Jr. for an embrace. Thompson responded with the equivalent of Mutombo’s legendary finger wag, gently pushing him away.
“Man, sit the [expletive] down,” Thompson said, upset that Mutombo would be so late without ever stopping to call and explain.
Before Mutombo could finish stumbling through his clumsily worded tale about the difficulties he faced that morning while trying to move in his first biological daughter, Carrie, for her freshman year at Georgetown, Thompson reminded Mutombo that tardiness of any kind wouldn’t have been tolerated back when he and Alonzo Mourning were playing for the Hoyas.
“You already know what would’ve happened,” Thompson said. “The bus would’ve left you.”
Mutombo’s raspy, cacophonous, baritone cackle was all that could be heard for the next few seconds. After the lecture, Thompson and Mutombo spoke for nearly an hour, expressing fawning reverence for each other while discussing a most improbable journey of a raw, unskilled 7-footer who came to Georgetown from the Democratic Republic of Congo three decades ago. At that time, Mutombo was seeking to become a doctor, but Thompson convinced him that he would impact more lives through basketball than with a medical degree.
The coach proved prescient. Not only will Mutombo join Patrick Ewing and Mourning in the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday, further bolstering Georgetown’s standing as Big Man University; he also used his platform to engage in humanitarian efforts — such as building a hospital in his native Kinsasha — that have resulted in a friendship with the late Nelson Mandela and praise from President George W. Bush during a State of the Union address.
“This still is like a dream to me,” Mutombo said last month, relaxing on a bench near Georgetown’s Red Square. “I have not wake up yet. …
“That’s what some of those young kids need to learn today: It’s good to play the game,” Mutombo, 49, said. “It’s good to dribble the ball, to score. It’s good to be famous by playing the game of basketball. But what are you doing with it? What are you doing with the fame and the skill that God gives to you? Are you using it as a vehicle that can take you through different doors, open up more venues for you?”
The Biamba Marie Mutombo hospital, named after Mutombo’s mother and built largely on the millions he earned, has treated thousands of people and will stand as one of his greatest accomplishments. But with Thompson and former NBA commissioner David Stern set to present him for enshrinement, Mutombo won’t bother ranking which achievement makes him proudest.
“I would not take my basketball accomplishment out. I would not. Because I’m not God, to know exactly what my life could’ve been had I just focused on going to medical school,” Mutombo said. “I think I am a better doctor now than those who have gone to medical school. Yes. I’m treating more people now than those who are practicing – because they all work for me. [Basketball] was a great vehicle for me, that allowed me to accomplish what I did.”
During an 18-year career, Mutombo became an eight-time all-star, a four-time defensive player of the year and a fearless shot-blocker who created the most memorable post-rejection taunt in NBA history: the finger wag. Mutombo lifted Denver to respectability and one of the greatest playoff upsets ever, anchored the defense for solid playoff teams in Atlanta, made two NBA Finals appearances and served up embarrassing rejections until he retired at age 42.
“Dikembe was a raw talent, but the one thing that he brought to the table that you cannot teach, is hunger,” said Mourning, who entered the Hall of Fame last year. “The legacy is solidified now. All three of the big men that kind of helped make the name of the legacy of Georgetown, of what it’s all about, we’ve got those three guys that are in.”
Thompson said having Ewing, Mourning and Mutombo in Springfield “is the greatest thing in the world.”
Mutombo is especially appreciative to the Hall of Fame selection committee for recognizing that basketball is played on both ends of the floor and rather than snub him for not being a dominant scorer.
“One of the thing I want to be remembered, to be among the great defensive forces to ever play the game. It was a promise I made to myself,” Mutombo said. “To me, this is a great lesson. For all the young people who playing basketball today, in the AAU, where I see my children performing, that the game is not about how many points you score any given night. It’s, ‘Are you helping your team? How much you’re contributing?'”
Only Hakeem Olajuwon blocked more shots, but the iconic image of Mutombo’s elongated index finger waving side to side is so popular it became the basis of a GEICO commercial that made him famous to a younger generation. Despite the acclaim, Mutombo has yet to garner approval from his two harshest critics: Jean Jacque and Ryan, boys born after he won his final defensive player of year award and earned second-team all-NBA honors in 2001.
Shaking his head in frustration last month, Mutombo said, “They always ask me, ‘Were you any good?'”
Had his life gone according to the original plan when he arrived at Georgetown on an academic scholarship, with just two pair of pants, three shirts and a minimal grasp of English, Mutombo said he probably would have gone on to improve the lives of several people back home as a doctor. But Mutombo had little chance to actually take that path as a 7-foot-2 student on a campus where a future Hall of Fame coach presided over one of the country’s power programs.
At the urging of nearly every student, faculty member and even the school president, Father Timothy Healy, Mutombo decided to meet with Thompson, who was intrigued after receiving word of the giant from the country then known as Zaire through someone at the State Department. Mutombo experienced the power of professional sports as a child, when he witnessed Muhammad Ali defeat George Foreman among thousands of admiring fans. But he had played organized basketball for less than two years and wasn’t necessarily a fan of the game. When Thompson showed up for their first meeting with that white towel hanging over his shoulder, Mutombo was so awestruck and intimidated that he had to commit.
At the time he was landing Mutombo, Thompson was busy recruiting Mourning, the nation’s top high school prospect.
“Dikembe was my hole card,” Thompson said. “I was telling a friend of mine, ‘I think I’m going to get Mourning, but if I don’t get Mourning, I got another kid who isn’t as good as Mourning right now but he will be able to help us.'”
Mourning routinely embarrassed Mutombo in those early practices — overpowering him, dunking on him, taunting him — and Thompson repeatedly challenged his Mutombo to respond in kind, or stop him. Thompson was demanding, once kicking Mutombo out of practice and threatening to remove him from the team after Mutombo skipped a day of class. Mutombo had a seemingly valid excuse: a severe toothache and subsequent dental visit that kept him sidelined. Failure to report the illness infuriated Thompson, and the incident moved Mutombo to tears.
“Coach really didn’t take no prisoner. It was his way, or no other way. You were here to play basketball but you also had to go to class. If you didn’t, you were in trouble,” said Mutombo, who estimates that at least five of his roommates were removed from the program during his three years on the team.
Early on, Thompson also decided to hold Mourning accountable during games for making sure Mutombo was in proper position. During one game, a frustrated Mourning walked over to the bench to tell Thompson that the communication problems weren’t because of a lack of effort: “Dikembe doesn’t speak English!”
Mutombo started to believe he could have a future in basketball a few months into his sophomore season, when foul trouble forced Mourning to the bench against St. John’s and Mutombo broke the school and Big East record with 12 blocked shots. After the game, Thompson was asked what made Mutombo so good and the coach replied, “He’s not so good yet.”
“I always told people Dikembe didn’t know how to play but hustled. And he hustled like hell until he learned how to play,” Thompson said. “To see how far he came, to me, to the point that he’s a Hall of Fame player is amazing. And I think he deserves the credit because of his persistence and his hard work. It wasn’t a thing that he assumed that because I was 7 feet tall or that I played at Georgetown, that I had inherited it. He worked for it. And I’m really proud of that, in him.”
Ewing, then an all-star for the New York Knicks, invited Mutombo and Mourning to workout sessions when he returned to Washington in the offseason. With Thompson peeking from his office to observe, the trio would engage in some physical, grueling battles that yielded some trash talk, a few scraps and, occasionally, blood.
“You would’ve thought they were the world’s worst enemies. You would think it was World War IV,” Thompson said with a laugh. “I would peep through the door and I would look and then I’d see the three of them laughing like hell and going to lunch or going to dinner.”
The summer workouts expedited Mutombo’s growth, while also helping him develop the mentality necessary to win three blocked shot titles in the NBA: a willingness to get humiliated while protecting the paint. He can’t go many days without someone — often one of his sons — reminding him of how Michael Jordan once climbed him for a dunk and mockingly wagged his finger in defiance.
Before composing his trademark gesture, Mutombo used to scorn opponents by shaking his head. As players kept rising to put him in highlights, Mutombo decided to take a more dramatic, animated approach.
“I saw the reaction of the fans and I was, ‘They must love it.’ It was fun until,” Mutombo said, then he sighed. “I got to the Hawks and we was playing against the Boston Celtics, I had like eight blocked shots in the game. The next day, [former Celtics coach] Rick Pitino started complaining to the league office and say that their players were embarrassed and that I was taunting them.”
After numerous fines and meetings with Stern, Mutombo found a compromise in which he would wag the finger toward the crowd. The affable Mutombo later connected with Stern through his involvement in uplifting the lives of people in his homeland. Stern created the position of global ambassador to provide Mutombo a role within the league once his playing career ended.
“When you think of Dikembe, he embodies everything that the NBA is looking for in a player,” Mourning said. “He was dedicated to the game. He had a love and passion for community and other people. From a global perspective, he’s an ambassador on so many levels.”
By the end of Mutombo’s conversation with Thompson last month, the coach couldn’t find any reason to be upset. He walked out of the practice gym, smiled at Mutombo and said, “There’s something about that African.”