Q&A: Dikembe Mutombo on the Legacy of His Finger Wag, This NBA Season and More

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Dikembe Mutombo had a Hall of Fame basketball career, and he has continued to flourish following his retirement from the NBA.

Mutombo runs the philanthropic Dikembe Mutombo Foundation, which is centered around providing health care to people living in the Democratic Republic of Congo, his home country. He also recently released Mutombo Coffee, seeking to provide new opportunities to women farmers in Africa.

In addition to his service to the world, Mutombo remains a fixture on GEICO’s TV commercials, rejecting shots and showing off his signature finger wag. The trademark gesture, which was also on display in his Coming 2 America cameo—has become so intertwined with his identity that there are times he needs to remind people it is a callback to his time on the basketball court, where he blocked 3,289 shots, second all-time in NBA history.

Mutombo spoke with Sports Illustrated, discussing the NBA’s best active post players and his appearance in the new Eddie Murphy film, as well as sharing his insight on the GOAT debate between LeBron James and Michael Jordan.

Sports Illustrated: Did you ever envision the finger wag becoming so intertwined with your playing career?

Dikembe Mutombo: Isn’t it crazy? Many people don’t even how many blocked shots I had in my career, but they know my GEICO commercial. Everywhere I go now, I hear, “No, no, no!” And I say, “No, my name is Mutombo!”

I never thought what I was doing on the basketball court would become a signature part of my life. To me, it was fun to do it, even though I was fined so many times for it. People forget that. I lost a lot of money on that finger wag; I got so many technical fouls. I had so many conversations with the commissioner about it, but it all worked out.

SI: There is a plethora of talented big men in the NBA, like Anthony Davis, Nikola Jokić, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid. Right now, who is the best big man in the game?

DM: That is a tough question. There are so many great players competing at the big man position. But I will say that the MVP this season, it has to go to Joel or Jokić. They are the two players dominating the game right now. In terms of an overall performance, right now, Joel is leading the way.

SI: I know it’s been a minute since you played in the NBA, retiring following the playoffs in 2009—but if you stepped back on the court now, could you still reject shots from stars like Embiid and Jokić?

DM: Of course, and they know that. They might be able to get a few shots in, but only a few. They know I’m still the master of ceremonies.

SI: During your 18 seasons in the NBA, you played against Michael Jordan during his peak, a period when he won five of his six titles. You also played against LeBron James, who had yet to win a title when you retired but has won four since. In your opinion, who is the greatest of all time: LeBron or Michael?

DM: That debate will continue to rise. This is the same debate we had with our late friend, Kobe Bryant. People would ask if Kobe was better than Michael; now people ask if LeBron is better. Everyone compares LeBron to Michael, which makes Michael the greatest. All success is compared to him.

I have such a great respect for Michael. When I came in the league, Hakeem Olajuwon was the best defender. Bill Russell came before him, and he was the best of the best. It is very tricky to pick the best player in league history. Bill Russell won 11 rings in 13 seasons. How can anyone compare to that? Michael won six. Who can compare to those six? LeBron has won four. Steph Curry has three. But there is always more history to be made in this game, which is what makes it so great.

I was lucky and fortunate enough to play against Michael, and a little bit against LeBron. He became more dominant after I left. I think that Michael is still the greatest.

SI: Who is the more iconic duo: Eddie Murphy and Arsenio Hall or Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen?

DM: There is no one like Eddie Murphy. He is the biggest star in the world. He is the best comedian in our time after Richard Pryor, and he carries on that legacy. Look at Coming 2 America, he plays so many roles; that is so hard to do. That tells you how talented the man is.

SI: Coming to America is an iconic film. How did you get cast in the sequel?

DM: The original was the best. It was a brand-new story about coming to America. I heard the sequel was being filmed and they were looking for somebody from Africa to play a part. I know almost everybody in the movie, and I was lucky to be part of it.

SI: The film is such a universal love story and Coming 2 America captured so many of the original’s most endearing parts.

DM: It’s a wonderful story, and everybody loves the prince of Zamunda. It was amazing, and I am so grateful to Eddie Murphy to everyone on the production team. I feel very blessed to be part of it. I’ve been getting phone calls from friends all over, even in Africa where they are watching the movie in French, to say congratulations.

SI: Another important person in your life is the legendary coach John Thompson, who was your coach at Georgetown. When he passed away in August, it was a blow to the basketball world. What did Coach Thompson mean to you?

DM: Coach played such a big role in my life. It’s so sad that he is no longer with us, but his presence continues to be felt. He shared so many things with us—his love and passion for the game but also how to be respectful and compassionate. He was full of love and beauty. He cared about the people around him. He taught us to earn people’s respect by working hard.

He was a father figure to so many of us. He was a great teacher, a great coach, a great mentor. He always had the right advice. Those phone calls with him, that’s something I still miss.

SI: On the subject of Georgetown, congratulations to your son, Ryan, who will be a Hoya next fall.

DM: I’m so proud of my boy. I want him to do well. I will be there to cheer for him as he finishes his high school career and goes to college. I am very proud of him.

SI: The way your parents encouraged you to make the world a better place, that is a pivotal piece of your story. You have dedicated your life to serving the world, both as a global ambassador to the game of basketball and through your devotion to creating even more goodwill off the court.

DM: I’m just trying to contribute to making the world a better place for generations to come. My mom and dad, and my grandparents, they left behind some big footprints. They shared so much with us, so I want to give back. I want to make the world better. That’s why I am so proud of the coffee, Mutombo Coffee. There is so much meaning behind it, supporting women farmers in Africa. We need to give back to the world.

SI: We just finished All-Star weekend, but looking ahead, do you have a favorite to win this year’s NBA title?

DM: It’s too early to tell. The one thing to know about the NBA is that the season is based on staying healthy. If you’re injured, you can’t finish the season the way you want to. So we’ll see who is still standing. That’s why Willis Reed is one of the best players ever. People thought the Knicks were done when he went down [in the 1970 NBA Finals], but he came back on one leg. He was the last man standing. So we’ll see who stays healthy at the end of the season.

Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.