When Dikembe Mutombo arrived at Georgetown University in 1986, he had dreams of being a doctor. He was a native of the Republic of Congo and he had an academic scholarship. And his father, who was a school teacher, had instilled in him how important it would be to return home and help his community.
Sports was the last thing on his mind. That is until legendary coach John Thompson ran into Mutombo during his sophomore season. At the time, Coach Thompson was one of the five best coaches in college basketball, having led the Hoyas to three national title games and one championship. And he knew potential when he saw it, considering the fact that he had just finished coaching a man by the name of Patrick Ewing.
And here was Mutombo, a skinny 7'2" teenager with a phenomenal wingspan. So what if he never played organized basketball a day in his life. So what if Mutombo's father demanded he return home upon receiving his degree. So what if he didn't speak a word of English. Coach Thompson offered him a spot on his roster. All he had to do was say yes.
Fortunately, he did.
Coach Thompson was right. His protege was a quick learner and eventually became a shot-blocking machine. He teamed with Alonzo Mourning to form the "Twin Towers," a fearsome duo that terrorized anybody foolish enough to drive to the basket. I remember "Rejection Row" at the Hoyas home games. It was a section of fans behind the basket who kept count of Mutombo's many blocked shots. I remember the game in which he set a team record by blocking 12 shots. I remember when I tried to learn his full name (he has seven total). I remember being shocked that he was studying to learn four languages (in addition to the five he already knew)!
After a terrific collegiate career, Mutombo was selected fourth (in what turned out to be a very weak draft) by the Denver Nuggets. Although he was their cornerstone player, the team sucked. Mutombo's highlight with the team came in his third season.
That season, the Nuggets shocked the sports world when they defeated the Seattle Supersonics and became the first No. 8 seed to defeat a No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
For me, the most memorable moment in his career came at the end of Game Five, when Mutombo fell to the floor, clutched the basketball, and produced one of the biggest smiles I've ever seen.
He seemed to bounce around after that. He went to Atlanta and played on a very good Hawks team. Unfortunately, that team always seemed to run head-on into the Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls. After four years in the Dirty South, he was traded to Philadelphia in 2001 to play alongside fellow Hoya, Allen Iverson. That Sixers team enjoyed one of the best seasons in franchise history. Led by Iverson, the league's MVP, they advanced all the way to the Finals where they fell to the Los Angeles Lakers.
Beset by injuries and decline, he would go on to spend forgettable seasons with the New Jersey Nets and the New York Knicks. He seemed all but forgotten when he signed with the Houston Rockets in 2004 to serve as a backup for Yao Ming.
But Mutombo found a home for himself there where he was re-energized. This time it was he who played the role of Coach Thompson, serving as a mentor to Yao. And when the Chinese big-man missed time due to a rash of injuries, Mutombo jumped back into the starting lineup and provided much-needed leadership and, of course, his trademark defensive presence.
He has enjoyed an 18-year career. He has battled the great centers of his generation (Shaq, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Ewing, and Mourning). With the exception of Olajuwon, he has blocked more shots than any other player in NBA history. He has been the butt of a million Charles Barkley jokes ("Mutombo has gotta be at least 50 years old!!!"). He has eight all-star appearances under his belt. He's been named Defensive Player of the Year four times.
And he has wagged the finger.
Ah, yes. The finger-wag. Mark Jackson had the shimmy-shoulder-shake and Chuck "the Rifle Man" Person had the pistols-pulled-from-the-holster routine. But no player has ever had a more signature, celebratory gesture than Mutombo's finger-wag. Every time he blocked a shot, he would turn to the crowd and wag his finger the way a parent would do to their young child. For some dumb reason, the NBA tried to crack down on it. But it didn't work. It was a popular and playful gesture.
But what I really liked about the guy is that he was the league's greatest humanitarian. He DID go back to the Congo. He may not have become a doctor, but he did open the first medical facility in his hometown in nearly 40 years. The Dikembe Mutombo Foundation has raised millions of dollars to help Central Africans in their fight against disease and illiteracy. His charity work even got the attention of President Bush, who gave him a shout-out at the 2007 State of the Union address.
So I was sad to hear that the big man suffered a career-ending knee injury during last night's playoff game. It was a disheartening way for it to end. But he will forever be remembered as one of the league's great warriors, and also one of it's classiest guys. In a time when we all question whether athletes should be role models, here's a guy who truly was one. And although his playing career is over, something tells me that Dikembe Mutombo is just getting started.