It's still one of the most iconic images in NBA playoff history: Dikembe Mutombo, laying on the court while clinching the ball above his head and crying—the improbable had happened.
His Denver Nuggets had overcome a 0-2 deficit against the Seattle SuperSonics, who had the best record in the NBA, to become the first eighth-seeded squad in NBA history to upset a No. 1 team. In the clinching Game 5, Mutombo, the team's defensive star, had eight blocks and 15 rebounds.
On Thursday night, or Saturday if necessary, the Atlanta Hawks, for whom Mutombo played with for five years, will have a chance to enter the record books 20 years after the Nuggets sent Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton on a startling early vacation. Now, the Indiana Pacers could be just hours away from packing up.
Speaking with Bleacher Report, Mutombo went down memory lane to share his reflections from 1994, the team's behind-the-scenes strategies, how the series win impacted his life forever and more. With his consent, his story is presented here from his perspective, edited for clarity and length.
I've watched the Hawks, and I'm a little bit surprised. I went to a lot of Hawks games during the regular season, and I was wondering what kind of team they were going to have in the playoffs. The way those guys came together and played the way they are playing, I tip my hat to them. I'm very proud of them. I didn't think they were going to do this well. I'm also very shocked by Indiana because it didn't play like that at the beginning of the season.
But as you know, the NBA playoffs are full of surprises—like what we did 20 years ago. It's still one of the moments I love talking about.
I live in Atlanta, and right now, the entire town is talking about the Hawks. And everyone is asking me if they can make history like we did. I was at this gym Wednesday morning working out, and everybody was coming up to me, "What do you think about your former Hawks? You think they're going to follow your footsteps of what you did in Denver?" It was good to know that people were coming up to me asking me if I think the Hawks will follow what we did. I set an example for people to follow me, which is good.
My greatest memory of that playoff series—the first one of my career—is the commitment that we made in the locker room between coach Dan Issel and the players. We were a very young team that showed up against the Seattle SuperSonics, who had Shawn Kemp and Gary Payton and Detlef Schrempf. It was a mental commitment from all 12 guys on the team who put their hands together and said, "We can do it, let's go do it," before the series started. And we eventually did it.
Another thing I'll never forget is my defense style back then. It was at another level. I ended up breaking the NBA playoff record for a five-game series with 31 blocked shots. I think that was something also that inspired my teammates and lifted my teammates to go out and play the way they played.
Even though we were the youngest team in the league, playing the top-seeded Sonics, we had this mentality: It was the playoffs, and we were going to step in the ring together even though they may knock us out with one punch. We all thought of Mike Tyson, one of the greatest boxers ever to step in the ring in our lifetime. And we saw him going up in the ring and knocking people down. Some guys didn't get back up, some guys got back up in one minute, some guys got back up right away. So you just have to be ready.
We knew we could beat them if we came together, but there were so many adjustments we had to make. Playing Seattle, we knew that the games would be decided by Gary Payton and Shawn Kemp. As many dunks as Shawn Kemp gets, Dan said, "Dikembe, you have to do it. You have to stop him and people inside." That was one of the greatest gifts I had in me, and I took that advice from Dan, who's someone I admire so much until today. I went and did it.
And then there was Payton.
During the series, Dan was asking us to just close our ears. We knew Shawn Kemp wasn't going to be a big speaker, but we knew Payton was going to talk trash regardless. And some of us—myself and Reggie Williams and Rodney Rogers and Robert Pack and Brian Williams, who later changed his name to Bison Dele—I think we got under his skin because we were just talking trash back to him. I can't repeat what both of us said. It was the words between two men. But I think that was something that hurt him later in the series.
People really never knew about it, but the Sonics checked out of the hotel the day of Game 3. They checked out of the Westin hotel in downtown Denver, thinking that they were going home after the game. They weren't respecting us—nobody was. The team would ask us not to go look at the newspaper, but at the end of the day, you're curious to try to know exactly what is happening, what they're saying. That's very important to know what's really going on.
Twenty minutes before Game 3, Dan, who was a great basketball player himself for the Nuggets, gave us a good lecture about what we needed to do to stay alive. And we took that very seriously. He asked us if we had the guts enough to let somebody just walk in our house and beat us and go back to Seattle. I think that was one thing that made everyone on the team very upset—that they didn't respect us, and nobody thought we would win.
In the playoffs, you want to gain respect.
I also think John Elway, the former quarterback of the Broncos, changed what was going on. He came to our locker room before Game 3, and he pumped up the fans at the middle of the court before the game started. I think Elway was the biggest superstar for American football at the time, so it was the best thing for us to have him there. And he was there, too, when we played the Utah Jazz in the second round. He was a big reason why we had success at home and took the Jazz to Game 7 after being down 0-3.
That night for Game 3 against the Sonics, Reggie Williams had 31 points. Then in Game 4, it was LaPhonso Ellis with 27 points. And in Game 5 back in Seattle, it was Robert Pack off the bench with 23 points. That's what you need in a team—you need to have a strong commitment from all 12 guys, especially the guys who are coming from the bench. I think that was a key of our success.
After we won Game 5, I remember seeing Payton on the other side of the court. He was still sitting on the bench. He left the court, but he didn't walk to the locker room. He just sat on the bench, looking at the arena, what was happening. He wasn't talking to anyone.
When I grabbed the final rebound, I did not end up on the court right away like everyone remembers. But when I did, it was the excitement, the emotion of beating the team that everyone thought was going to be the No. 1 team to win the NBA championship by the way it had played, the kind of players it had. It also had one of the smartest coaches in the league in George Karl. There was nothing negative you could say about the Sonics. So we really did shock the world, and that's the only way I can describe it.
While I was on the court and after the game, I was also thinking about my personal journey from Africa. It was a time to reflect on the decision I made when I came to the league. I was thinking that by the time I walk away from this game, I wanted to be seen as one of the great defensive players who ever played this game. And I think I did reach that because I set the tone from my rookie days when I was able to make the All-Star team and my third year when I helped knock out the Sonics. Personally, I did have a journey at the time of where I wanted to be tomorrow, and I was able to accomplish it.
Overall, the series changed my life. It gave me a sense of belief that if you have a strong will and if you have a strong faith, you can accomplish what you want, and you can overcome any obstacle. You have to stretch your mind and keep going forward, and I did it in so many ways and so many areas. That mentality carried over to my sixth year in the league, when I wanted to build a hospital. Everybody thought I was crazy and I was a fool. They said, "You're a basketball player. What do you know about building a hospital? What do you know about running a hospital?" I said, "This is what I want to do."
It's about setting your goals in life and trying to follow your journey. When people try to bury that, you cannot walk away. If you have a goal of success, I think you can reach it, but you have to have faith. Faith is not something that you can see, but you can imagine.
You cannot let people take hope away from you.
This season, my former teammates and I were able to have a reunion in Denver during a Nuggets game in March. All of us were there for a halftime ceremony to celebrate the 20th anniversary of our upset, except our good friends Rodney Rogers, who couldn't travel because of his condition—he's paralyzed from a bike crash in 2008—and our belated brother Brian Williams, who's no longer with us. I was very surprised to see basically everybody 20 years later. There were guys that I haven't seen in 20 years.
For the Hawks entering Game 6, or Game 7 if it happens, I think the biggest mindset for them is this: When you walk on the basketball court, you should feel that you have absolutely nothing to lose. I think that would motivate a young team when they're playing some big team with great success during the regular season. You know that everybody has already written you off; nobody thinks you're going to win one game. Your home fans have one foot in, one foot out, and it's up to you guys in the locker room to decide your will.