On Monday, the National Basketball Hall of Fame will announce its 2015 class, with shot-swatting, finger-wagging Dikembe Mutombo among the most likely inductees. Mutombo, the NBA’s Global Ambassador, spoke to SI.com from Denver, where he visited Fort Carson as part of the league’s Hoops for Troops partnership with the USO, Department of Defense and PlayStation.
SI.com: Are you nervous for the Hall of Fame voting results Monday?
Mutombo: A little bit, but at the same time I’m very excited to see my name, and I’m praying that I will be called to be in the Hall of Fame this year.
SI.com: Do you expect to be elected?
Mutombo: I’m keeping my fingers crossed. Hopefully the committee will give me a chance. As a young man I did what you are supposed to do on the basketball court, and I left so many marks on the floor.
SI.com: What would it mean to you to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame?
Mutombo: It would be a great deal for me. Just to be among the great African players to make it, to set an example or to be a role model for so many kids that will come after me and know that the chance for you to play this wonderful game is not so far. It’s about leaving a great legacy.
SI.com: Since 2008, there’s been an African-born big man selected in all but one NBA Draft. Do you think you deserve some credit for that?
Mutombo: Yes. To look at my statistics and to see what I was able to do, I did a lot. I thank Hakeem Olajuwon for coming, being such a great player so that all of us who came after him can look at him and see the path that we need to follow. I worked really hard on the basketball court, breaking all the record you can name, winning all those defensive titles, helping my team reach a different goal that they didn’t have before.
SI.com: Have you been watching the NCAA Tournament?
Mutombo: Of course. I’m going to the Final Four.
SI.com: A lot of good big men are likely entering the NBA draft this year. If you had to choose, who would you take with the first pick if you were an NBA team, between Jahlil Okafor, Karl-Anthony Towns or even Willie Cauley-Stein?
Mutombo: Okafor is a young man, but I think his approach to the game has set him apart from a lot of players coming out this year. I think he has a high chance to be the No. 1 draft pick, if I was a GM.
SI.com: So you would pick Okafor?
Mutombo: Definitely. I think he’s a hard-working kid. He has a lot more to improve, and he will continue to do it.
SI.com: We’ve seen a lot of guys—Hasheem Thabeet, Ekpe Udoh, Meyers Leonard—who come into the league with what’s supposed to be a Dikembe Mutombo-like skillset, and then it doesn’t translate in the NBA. Why haven't these defense-first centers been able to find the kind of success you had?
Mutombo: Good question. To really answer that in the best way, I will say that life is not about where you started. It’s more about where you want to be tomorrow. If one of those kids can find a way to answer those questions, to themselves, they will have a better chance to have success. Some of them maybe have a difficulty to answer that question. It’s not enough to get drafted by the NBA because you were all-McDonald’s or all-NCAA first team and all that. But when you come to the NBA and you don’t want to pick up your intensity, the chance for you to disappear in college is much higher.
It’s not just about young big men from African countries that are coming into the NBA. I think it goes to every kid that’s going to the NBA. Out of my 18 years in the NBA, I saw guys who were some of the best players in college or in high school, and they come to the NBA, and they just disappear. Because you’re dealing with a different culture where you are traveling five times a week, you don’t know the name of the place you stay. There’s practice, there are meetings, and it just keeps going. If you don’t have the good discipline and a solid foundation, you will fall. We do see that in the NBA every year.
SI.com: So is there any way for NBA teams to look at the big men who are coming out this year and have any sense of which have that necessary discipline?
Mutombo: The NBA can help you, but you need to have some role model that you can follow. Many of those guys, they don’t want to have somebody who has played in the NBA before that can be a role model for them, someone you can talk to. I remember when I came to the NBA, the day after I was drafted I went and spent the week with Bill Russell, who talked to me about what it is like playing in the NBA, what it is like dominating the game defensively, all of that stuff, what it is like working with your teammates. And I was also lucky to have a big brother like Patrick Ewing on my side, who I can call any night to talk to about my game.
The big challenge is the mental challenge. If you are not able to recover yourself mentally you will fail. You need someone to talk to every day, someone who has gone through what you have to go through. Not just your coach from high school who never played in the NBA.
SI.com: Do you try to take a mentorship role with any big men in the NBA now?
Mutombo: There are a few guys who will call you once in a while. I don’t think too many of them really want to stay close and talk to you every day. The culture has changed. Young people who grow up today want to be independent and don’t want to talk to nobody.
SI.com: Is there any big man in the NBA currently who has your type of game?
Mutombo:Dwight Howard continues to show that he wants to help his team defensively. I like this young kid playing for the Utah Jazz, from France [Rudy Gobert]. The way he’s blocking shots he reminds me of Mutombo. He has good people who are talking to him to help him keep improve himself every day.
SI.com: Which current NBA big man would you have had trouble guarding?
Mutombo: There are a lot of big men who are playing well right now. The game is changing. There are not so many big men like myself, Alonzo [Mourning], Patrick [Ewing], David Robinson, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and all those who were dominating the block. Most of our bigs today, they want to shoot the ball. We have a few big men left, like Pau Gasol and Marc Gasol, you have [Joakim] Noah, all those young men who are trying to play with the same standard of the old tradition. They continue to play the game the same style.
SI.com: As a rim protector, do you think you would have had trouble guarding someone like Anthony Davis, who is moving around the court more and has range and athleticism?
Mutombo: I don’t think so. If I was able to guard David Robinson and Karl Malone, someone who was a little bit difficult to guard because not only does he play on the block he was able to go outside, those 18- or 16-foot jump shots. You can move. It’s about mobility and commitment.
SI.com: Would your numbers be better or worse if you were playing now instead of 15, 20 years ago?
Mutombo: I would continue to dominate. I would continue to dominate defensively. Nothing will have change. I think I have set myself apart. On the defense end, it would just adjust to the new culture of the game and I will dominate the game.