SI.com talked with Dikembe Mutombo in advance of his enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
Dikembe Mutombo entered the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday night after an 18-year career with six different franchises, eight All-Star appearances, four Defensive Player of the Year awards, and countless trademark finger wags after blocking opponents' shots.
Feared by opponents as one of the game's great rim protectors and by everyone on the court for his notoriously wayward elbows, the 7'2" center from the Congo has gone on to leave a rich legacy not only on the court—trailing only Hakeem Olajuwon all-time with 3,289 blocks and ranks 20th in career rebounds—but off it, focusing much of his time on humanitarian work in Africa and around the globe.
* Editor’s note: SI.com caught up with one of basketball's newest and most affable Hall of Famers on the morning of his enshrinement to look back at his accomplishments and commemorate the day.
SI.com: Dikembe, first of all, congratulations. You're going into the Hall of Fame on Friday. How's that feel?
Mutombo: I'm feeling good. Relaxing. A lot of people have been asking, I'm feeling relaxed. I'm happy. Feeling so much love from different people from across the globe. I've been getting texts, emails, phone calls since yesterday. My phone won't stop ringing. It's been great. I don't know if I'm going to be able to answer everyone's emails but I'm trying my best.
SI.com: What does it mean to you to finally be a Hall of Famer?
Mutombo: It means a lot to me, to the generation that's coming after me, to the continent of Africa in particular. To see a son of Congo who came to America with nothing today, sitting on one of the highest platforms in the game of basketball...it means a lot. Really. It's good for my children, my wife, I just wish that my mom and dad were still alive to have seen this. I know they're watching us.
SI.com: I assume you have a speech planned for the ceremony. What are we going to say?
Mutombo: [Laughs] I have a good speech man, it's going to be good. I'm going to try to thank everyone who played such a role in my life, for me to get here. Starting with my wife, then my coaches, teammates, all different friends that have helped me, I'm going to talk about them.
SI.com: You're going in alongside [longtime NBA referee] Dick Bavetta. How many technical fouls did he give you for finger-wagging?
Mutombo: I keep complaining about it, every time I see him. I say, “Dick, I can't believe you and I are going into the Hall of Fame together.” I'm happy for him, but at the same time, I tell him, “You made me pay so much money to the NBA. Is there any way you can get me my money back?” And he says no, no, no, never. But it's been great. He was tough, man, one of the best referees, but he was not easy. He paid the same respect to all of the players.
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SI.com: You had your jersey retired by the Hawks this week—I saw the video and you looked surprised. What were you thinking when you found out?
Mutombo: It was a great feeling. I knew the Hawks were talking about having a Mutombo day. You know, Mutombo day can be anything. That's what I thought, because Houston really had a Mutombo day after I broke my knee , they recognized me, gave me a platform on the middle of the court, and it was music, it was a celebration, my family came, the CEO came. But I didn't know Mutombo day in Atlanta was something else from what I saw in Houston. They said, “No! We are hanging your jersey!” And I said, “What?” [Laughs] I think that part was not explained to me very well when I got the first phone call.
SI.com: Can you imagine what your life would be like if you'd gotten to Georgetown and decided not to join the basketball team? [He arrived at the school in 1988 on a USAID scholarship before coach John Thompson actually recruited him to join the team.]
Mutombo: I don't know. In French they say, men can propose what their life might be, but whatever you plan, if it's not according to God's plan, it will not happen. I think you can have an idea what you want your life to be, but if it's not according to God's plan, it's not going to be that way. And I think, I had a different plan for my life, but I didn't know what was planned for me.
I knew I wanted to become a doctor, but I didn't know I was going to be able to help treat 140-plus thousand women and children [at the hospital he opened in his home city of, Kinshasa, Congo in 2007] that we've treated already so far. If I was going to be a doctor, in that walk of life I don't think I'd be able to reach all those people. But I'm doing it on a different scale and different level thanks to the blessing that God has put in my life.
SI.com: As far as your off-the-court work, what's your next project?
Mutombo: I'm trying to build a community center in [Kinshasa], in the neighborhood where I grew up, which would include a basketball court, computers, classrooms, where kids can come after school and do their homework. Community leadership, mentorship for young people, to teach them values of life, all that stuff. Like a YMCA or Boys and Girls Club.
SI.com: Looking back at your career, what's most memorable?
Mutombo: Winning so many different titles, rebounding [2000, 2001], shot-blocking ['94, '95, '96], I think those are the big accomplishments. Those were the core values, part of my DNA, this was what I was looking to be, the things I was wishing to accomplish. I always wanted to be remembered as one of the greatest basketball players in history, and now, I feel myself going in as one of them.
SI.com: Does any particular blocked shot stick out to you? Or were there just too many...
Mutombo: There are so many of them. So many. I don't think there's really one, where I'd say this block was better than that block. I'm just glad I was able to block as many as I did.
SI.com: I think people forget that at 40 years old you were still doing it. What was the key to the longevity of your career?
Mutombo: 42 years old! [Laughs] It's all about self-discipline. I played basketball with a lot of discipline. You know, I prepared myself very well. Every single night when I was going to play. I think the results speak value off of that.
SI.com: Do you think we're seeing fewer true defensive specialists in today's NBA?
Mutombo: Oh, there are not too many Mutombo's out there. [Laughs] It's true. No, there's not. There are a few of them who are preparing to be like a Dikembe Mutombo, but I don't think there are so many of them out there. I think there's still a lot of work that needs to be done. The game has changed a lot, it's different.
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SI.com: I looked at your statistics and realized you might be the only player in the Hall of Fame whose highest scoring season was his rookie year. Did you know that? [Mutombo averaged 16.6 points and 12.3 rebounds as a 25-year-old rookie with the Nuggets.]
Mutombo: Ah, yes. Because I had a coach [Paul Westhead] who was trying to transform me from being a defensive force into an offensive force. [Laughs] I think he did a good job, he allowed me to be the first [Nuggets] rookie to make the All-Star team.
SI.com: When other people look at your career, what do you hope they remember?
Mutombo: I want them to see me as one of the great defensive basketball players that played the game. And I think I've reached that milestone.
SI.com: Well, congratulations again. When's the party?
Mutombo: 10 o'clock tonight. In the [Hall of Fame] museum. We spent a lot of money for that, food and drink, we're gonna party like until 3 o'clock in the morning tonight. It's going to be great.