No Holding Him Back

With unrestrained play, Nugget rookie Dikembe Mutombo has shown he's no 'project'
December 09, 1991

Dikembe Mutombo is new to this, so he searches for the proper air of petulance. Is that the right word? Petulance? He stands up from the chair in front of his locker. He is 7'2", maybe 7'3", maybe even 7'4". Hard to tell. His size dominates the Denver Nuggets' dressing room at McNichols Arena. His voice is deeper than deep—Paul Robeson singing Ol' Man River, Barry White promising everlasting love.

Mutombo announces that he won't sign the six basketballs sitting in identical boxes on a training table. There is no time. Understand? He has too much to do. He moves his size 20 Nike Air sneakers toward the door. He has to go. Understand? His leather coat already is zipped high against the cold that awaits outside. He has commitments. He has obligations. He is a star.

"I have to see my children. sonnnnnnn," says Mutombo to a Nugget official. "They are waiting for their father. They miss him very much. He travels so often. He has to see them when he can....

"I have to see my wife," he says. "She is a lovely woman. She also misses me. I am not home. I am at practice. I am playing in games. Lovely woman. I must see her."

The performance is good. Very good. Isn't this the way a star would act? He is the starting center for Denver. He is ripping the NBA apart. His face no doubt will be on boxes of breakfast cereal. His brand of shoes will be worn by acne-faced kids in high schools across the land. A string of championship banners will hang from the roof of the arena. His name will be mentioned in only the loftiest of basketball contexts: Kareem. Magic. Larry. Dikembe. Isn't this so?

"Dikembe," the official says, "you don't have any children....

"Dikembe," the official also says, "you're not even married."


Mutombo drops his gym bag to the floor, takes a felt-tipped pen and begins to sign his name across the pebbled surface of the balls. He is a rookie. He is 25 years old. He has played less than a fourth of his first pro season. He signs and signs. He says the official is lucky because this is the old autograph—MUTOMBO #55—and a new autograph will be used from this moment on. This is the ceremonial end to the old autograph.' The new autograph will be simpler—DM #55.

"The old autograph is too long, too many letters," Mutombo says, the deeper-than-deep voice coming through the trace of a smile. "If I have to sit down and sign 5,000 autographs at a time, the initials will be better."

He will get this thing right yet. He will be ready when stardom comes. Yes, he will.

"I am fighting to put my name in front in lights," he says, no fooling now. "I want, in every town, for people to say, 'Mutombo is coming tonight.' To do that, I have to suffer."

The idea, so crazy as recently as—what?—two months ago, has moved from the far back roads of possibility onto the fastest-speed lanes of probability. He can do it. Name in lights. Yes, he can. The guarded predictions from NBA observers and the closed mouths of the first three teams picking in the league draft last June already look silly. The prize of basketball prizes, a big man who scores and rebounds and closes up the middle of the lane tighter than a mortgage officer's heart in a down economy, apparently was available all the time.

The player who wasn't supposed to be able to score is averaging almost 20 points per game. The player who was supposed to take time to develop is locked in a battle with the Atlanta Hawks' Kevin Willis for the league rebounding lead, with almost 15 rebounds a game. The line on the projected performance chart already has gone off the graph paper and is headed up the wall toward the ceiling, where only the most famous basketball names are mentioned. He can do it. The player from Kinshasa, Zaire, who never touched a basketball until he was 18 years old...the player who could not speak English four years ago...the player who...the future suddenly seems almost dizzy.

"I've never seen a player work as hard as he does," says Nugget backup center Scott Hastings. "I've been in the league nine years, and I've only seen three players who practice every day as hard as they play—Bernard King, Sidney Moncrief and Dikembe. You look at the things he's doing—playing 41 minutes every game, practicing on the off-days so hard, then practicing after practice on his own moves. I've never seen this."

The story, high on any quotient of un-believability, seems to zip along on its own bewildering momentum. Boy grows up in Africa, in middle-class family. Boy always is tall, but never plays basketball until his last year of high school. Brother encourages him to play. Boy falls, cuts chin first time on the court. Scar still visible. Boy reads about big-time American basketball in newspapers pasted in windows of U.S. embassy, located near high school. Embassy official, among other people, sees boy play with Zaire's national team. Embassy official tries to find college in U.S. for boy to attend. Boy goes to Georgetown in Washington, D.C. Boy becomes man. Man becomes first-round draft choice. First-round draft choice becomes so much better than anyone expected. Plays up front, next to a man named Cadillac Anderson.

"I do not believe this, that I get here," says Mutombo. "I still do not believe this. I did not think I would be a professional basketball player. Even after my junior year at Georgetown, I did not think this. Then coach John Thompson brought Bill Russell in to talk with me. Bill Russell. Who knows more basketball than Bill Russell? He won 11 NBA championships, had to ask God to give him another finger for 11 rings. Bill Russell told me, 'You can do it.' He was there for five days. He talked to me for three, four hours a day. The man is so smart. He convinced me I could play."

How far has Mutombo come? How fast? He spent his freshman year at Georgetown concentrating on learning English. French is the language of Zaire. Mutombo, whose full name is Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean Jacque Wamutombo, the product of a Jesuit education at home, also knew Portuguese, Italian, Spanish and four African dialects, but he had to spend six hours a day on English lessons. His basketball was in the intramural leagues. He scored 50 points in one game, 35 points in most by just dunking over everyone he saw.

As a sophomore he mostly sat on the Hoya bench behind freshman Alonzo Mourning. In his junior year Mourning moved to forward, and Mutombo-started at center, but he scored only 10.7 points per game. In his senior year he averaged 15.2 points and 12.2 rebounds.

Most pro scouts decided he was a "project," a raw talent who might become a solid player in five years. The Charlotte Hornets, the first team to pick in the draft, passed on him to take forward Larry Johnson of UNLV. The New Jersey Nets selected guard Kenny Anderson of Georgia Tech. The Sacramento Kings chose forward Billy Owens of Syracuse. The Nuggets, at last, took the project with crossed fingers. "I think a lot of teams only had scouted him during games," says Denver general manager Bernie Bicker-staff. "I had seen him practice. He did things in practice that he never did in games. John Thompson said he was going to be a terrific pro."

The Nuggets, an abominable 20-62 team a year ago, lost in the frenzy of coach

Paul Westhead's doors-open offense, needed restructuring. Westhead decided to restructure around Mutombo. What else was there to do? He redesigned both the offense and defense around a mobile big man. He put in an offense that would take advantage of a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a defense that would take advantage of a young, shot-blocking Russell. Was it the move of a desperate man? Westhead had never seen Mutombo play in person. That was how desperate.

"He finally came in for five days in July," says Westhead. "It was just me, him and a basketball. It was like, 'O.K., I'm the director. I've already signed you as the lead for my next five movies. Nice to meet you. Now, let me see if you can talk.' I had a list of about 18 drills for him to do, things for him to take home so he would be ready for training camp. We went through the list, and he did this and he did that. Right away I could see that the guy could do a lot more things than people thought he could. And he could learn. Tell him something once and he would learn it. He was fundamentally sound."

One surprise has followed another. A full-extension hook shot—"Bill Russell told me to develop one shot, my shot, a killing weapon," Mutombo says, "and I picked this one"—has been a threat. Memories of Abdul-Jabbar. An eagerness to rebound, hands reaching for every loose basketball, has been a constant. Memories of Russell. A tiny turnaround jumper has begun to appear. A drop step and a dunk have been added. The young Nuggets have not exactly soared to the front of the standings, but they have been an interesting operation night after night.

Mutombo, who signed a five-year, $13.7 million contract on the trunk of a car a few minutes before the opening of training camp, has been a joy to Denver. He has announced that he won't go skiing because, he says, "I saw Barbara Bush break her leg skiing." He has told tales of Zaire, recalling the visit of Muhammad Ali for the big fight against George Foreman in 1974. His impression of Thompson—"Sonnnnnn, don't get caught up"—has become a locker room motto. Don't get caught up in what? "Anything," says Mutombo. He has worn his Nugget baseball cap backward, looking like a giant rapper or boy from the 'hood. The 'hood in Zaire? He has talked trash with anyone. Everyone.

"I met Michael Jordan this summer at a Comic Relief banquet in New York," says Mutombo. "I told him, 'Michael, you will not dunk on me. Don't even try.' We played an exhibition in New Orleans. I told him again. He did not dunk. Then we played him here last week. I told him. He did not dunk. With five seconds left, he was fouled. I told him at the line, 'Michael, you did not dunk on me.' He said, 'Mutombo, this is for you.' He closed his eyes. He made the foul shot."

The results thus far, as Westhead is quick to point out, are only the early returns. Teams will try more and more gimmick defenses against Mutombo—double-teaming him, triple-teaming, working his 245-pound body. The season is long. Injuries happen. A million things can happen. The important part of the early returns, though, is that they are good returns. Great returns. Not only can the big man play, but he wants to learn as well. The returns could get much better.

"He is so open to everything, so new to everything," says Westhead. "That is the beauty of him. We were playing one night, and Dikembe went down on the floor pretty hard. There was no call. I stood up, and the referee was near me. I started hollering for a foul. The referee turned and said to me, 'Good fake.' He thought Dikembe had tried to fake a foul. I yelled. Take? Don't you understand? This guy doesn't know what a fake is.' The idea of him faking was outrageous. Fake? There is no fake inside this man. Do you know what I mean? He is the real thing."

"When I signed my contract, my father was so happy he had a party for three days," Mutombo says. "This is something that never has happened in my family before, someone making a lot of money, someone who could help the family. I already have been able to send money to my uncles, to my brothers, to my sisters. And if something happens—someone is there to help. I hear people say, 'You must be proud of yourself,' but that is not the way I feel. I think that you don't feel proud of what you are doing; you feel proud about what people say you are doing."

He is going to a photo shoot. That is a part of his developing life. He has signed with a Los Angeles company, DIC Enterprises, which is marketing his name. He already has made a record called Dikembe Block. He has done some of the talk shows. DIC has put out a brochure detailing the languages he speaks. This photo shoot is at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. He is walking his slow walk down 14th Street, carrying the clothes he needs for the shoot.

On the outside wall of a furniture store is one of those four-story murals of a basketball player in flight against a blue background. The player is getting ready to dunk. The mural is old, advertising some kind of shoe. The player is anonymous, wearing a red uniform that says KOCKIES across the front. Mutombo studies the painting.

"Not very good," he says. "It looks like somebody in fifth grade did it."

"Maybe they should change the picture," someone suggests. "Maybe they should have Mutombo up there."

The big man studies the wall. He nods his head just a little bit. He is new to this. "Someday," the deeper-than-deep voice says.

No petulance needed. Can he do it? He can do it. He will be ready.

TWO PHOTOSJOHN W. MCDONOUGHMutombo, who's among the NBA leaders in rebounding and blocks, has been a handful for foes. PHOTOTIM DEFRISCOMutombo's looming presence makes the lane a pain for would-be drivers like Chris Mullin.
PHOTOJOHN W. MCDONOUGHJordan didn't even blink when confronted by Mutombo's you-won't-dunk-on-me challenge.