The children are clamoring behind the tall man as he sits on the bench icing his knees. Practice has just ended for the Denver Nuggets here in the gym at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and the tall man looks irritated. "I know you're back there," he says without turning around. "I will sign over by the rail when I am done."
He looks down at his knees or, more correctly, straight ahead at his knees, since they are almost at his eye level. The knees ache already, and the season is just starting; tall men take a beating from the shorter folks in this world. There is more rustling behind him.
Now the big man turns. Several little people look at him wide-eyed.
"Don't you speak English?" he booms at them. "Should I say it in French?" Children scatter like sprayed bugs.
The tall man finally stands up and walks to the railing. The children are there, unsure of what to expect. They don't know that the tall man could tell them to scram in French—or Spanish or Portuguese or Lingala or Tshiluba or three other African dialects. The tall man looks down at the crowd and then begins to sign autographs for the youngsters and to chat with them, his voice deep as a tuba in a well.
Something catches his fancy, and he laughs abruptly: "Ha! Ha! Ha!" It is a remarkable laugh, an honest, no-strings-attached basso profundo laugh. A triple honk. Somebody stepping three times on a great big duck. "Ha! Ha! Ha!" he laughs again, and there is not a person in the gym who isn't smiling.
Dikembe Mutombo, the Nuggets' 7'2", 255-pound fourth-year center out of Kinshasa, Zaire, by way of Georgetown University and the global basketball network, is a remarkable man. A fellow who is so tall, with arms that, spread wide, cover almost 7½ feet from fingertip to fingertip, is remarkable just standing there. But it's the fiber of this literally fibrous man (body fat once measured at 1.9%) that is most unusual. How often do you hear an NBA star laughing? Not snickering because an unwanted coach was fired. Or chortling because a million-dollar escalator clause just kicked in. Or woofing because some foe just received a fast-break Estèe Lauder full facial makeover. But plain old laughing because something was plain old funny.
At age 18, Mutombo could hardly find basketball shoes to fit him in all of Africa. "My shoes were size 17 as a freshman at Georgetown," he says in the Nuggets' locker room, "18 as a sophomore, 19 as a junior and 20"—their current status—"as a senior." He and an observer appraise a single empty Adidas sneaker the size of a mailbox. The visitor lifts the shoe, thinking that with a sail and a small rudder the craft could rule the high seas. "It's a good thing you didn't continue on to graduate school," says the visitor.
Mutombo's head tilts back, his eyes close, and here it comes again. "Ha! Ha! Ha!"
It's arguable that no professional basketball player from this country could be like Mutombo. To perform so ferociously on the court as a shot blocker, a rebounder and a guy who, as Nugget coach Dan Issel puts it, "can clog up the whole middle," and then to be gentle, considerate, learned, vivacious, charitable and—dare we say it?—cheerful off the court...well, that isn't the American way. Our pro athletes are hybrid minotaurs: part cranky old men, part six-year-old boys. They are lost somewhere between gluttony and yearning. A man has to feel very secure to be able to laugh freely. A sweet, laughing American-born NBA superstar? Go ahead, name one.
Imagine saying this about a hoops big shot: "He has an infectious smile. He brings everyone into the conversation, has something to say to everyone. He has a knack for dealing with people. I was on a cruise with him, and when people went up to talk to him, they went away so happy."
That's what Sacramento King coach Garry St. Jean says about Mutombo. Brings everyone into the conversation. As if the tall man were a host at a barbecue. As if he were Phil Donahue or something.
Just don't forget that during last season's Western Conference playoffs, the kind and caring Mutombo led the eighth-seeded Nuggets to a 3-2 series win over the first-seeded Seattle SuperSonics—after the Nuggets were down two games to none. Seattle had the best record in basketball last season, 63-19, while the Nuggets finished 42-40. But the tall man took offense at the notion that the Nuggets were just footscrapers on the Sonics' path to the NBA title. He had a dream about beating the Sonics three straight, and it steeled him for combat. "The dream, I think, was in English," he says. "My brain works more in English. When I go overseas, I sometimes get confused. There are certain African proverbs that I cannot tell in English, because there aren't words for them."
Still a citizen of Zaire, Mutombo learned French as a schoolboy in Kinshasa; the other languages he learned from speaking with his father (the Sorbonneeducated former director of the city's high schools), his mother (whose favored tongue is Tshiluba) and his neighbors. English he learned in his first two years at Georgetown. "Seven hours a day," he says of that process. He also learned Portuguese and Spanish. He graduated in 1991 with a degree in linguistics and diplomacy. "I was so proud of myself," he says.
The pride runs deep. It is the pride of one to whom dignity was bequeathed at birth, one who never lost his way, who never felt unloved, who never was afraid of a challenge. "I came from a stable family," he explains. "I had eight brothers and sisters, and we lived in a large house. There were, like, 17 of us in the house, with cousins and others, but my parents made sure I got what I wanted. My family is not broken. I was raised right. Education was the prime priority for us, and almost everybody in my family has finished college. One of my sisters is in Canada, and three brothers are here in the United States. I have a cousin, Louis Kanda, who is a surgeon in Washington, D.C., and that's why I chose Georgetown for school, to be near a family member."
It was Mutombo's elemental pride that enabled him to get so charged up against Seattle that he set an NBA record of 31 blocks in a playoff series. Everything the Sonics took to the bucket went bye-bye. Mutombo single-handedly turned a jamming team into a jump-shooting team. A bad one. "Their game was from the paint, from the inside," he states. "To me, going for blocks was the only way we could win. I kept telling them, 'Don't come!' "
"He got in our players' heads at the very beginning and never left," sighs Seattle coach George Karl.
Mutombo then bored into the craniums of the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference semifinal series, swatting away a new NBA playoff record of 38 shots. It's hard to say how many shots Mutombo altered in the playoffs or prevented from even being launched, but as covetous Golden State coach Don Nelson puts it, "There's nobody else in our league who has the intimidating presence he has in the hole. He's one of a kind."
Over the regular season Mutombo led the NBA in blocks, with 336, more than four a game. He also pulled down 12 rebounds a game, sixth best in the league. Along with those stats came the burgeoning belief among NBA analysts that Mutombo might be the most dominant defender in the game.
When the Houston Rockets' Hakeem Olajuwon won the NBA Defensive Player of the Year award last season, he said, "This award could have very easily gone to Mutombo." Rocket coach Rudy Tomjanovich says that if Denver can continue to load up on sharpshooters like guard Mahmoud Abdul-Rauf and offensive creators like rookie point guard Jalen Rose, and allow Mutombo to focus on rebounding and defense, it can win titles "just the way Boston won titles with Bill Russell."
Whoa, that's tough country there. Still, the Russell comparisons trickle in. Mutombo has Russell's ability to stay flat-footed on fakes and then, when the actual shot is in flight, to spin, leap and reach out with one of his incredibly long arms and smack the ball or tip it a millimeter before it reaches its apex. Even if an opposing player is able to retrieve Mutombo's block, the 24-second clock often forces him to throw up a prayer.
"Dikembe doesn't get the credit he deserves," says Minnesota Timberwolf center-forward Stacey King, a big Mutombo fan. "A lot of people don't consider shot blocking good defense, they consider it a last resort. But if you've got an intimidator back there, so that anybody going to the hole has a 90 percent chance his shot's going to get thrown out...it's big."
Like Russell, Mutombo is not much of a scoring threat. With his small assortment of dips and tips and his semi-awkward hooks, he's more Kurt Rambis than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. Still, his shooting percentage is awesome (.569 last season, second best in the league), and he must be doubled down low, or else he'll dunk on you the way he dunked on the Timberwolves for 39 points in a game two years ago. And Mutombo never gives up. "I'd say the most amazing things about him are his attitude and work ethic," says San Antonio Spur coach Bob Hill.
Russell has worked with Mutombo during off-seasons, and Mutombo is properly respectful of the Reverend of Rejection. "I want to be remembered as maybe a guy who could put himself in the same category as Bill Russell," says Mutombo, whose career scoring average of 13.9 points per game is similar to Russell's 15.1.
To get Russell-like notices, however, Mutombo must get the Nuggets to win big, too. "We feel good about the team we have here," he says. With guards Abdul-Rauf, Rose and Bryant Stith and forwards LaPhonso Ellis, Rodney Rogers and Brian Williams, the Nuggets do indeed have an ascendant, if mostly unheralded, cast. "We came from nowhere last year," continues Mutombo. "In a couple of years maybe we can reach the promised land."
Amazingly, at the venerable age (in basketball years) of 28, Mutombo thinks like a young and frisky guy. Partly that is because he didn't begin playing the game seriously until he was 17, and he hasn't suffered "asphalt burnout" like many American stars who lived their childhoods on playgrounds. And partly it is because of his natural exuberance. "Dikembe is very generous, very open," says his older brother Ilo, an associate producer for COMSAT Corp., the communications company in Washington, D.C. "When he was a child he loved animals. He had a cat, a dog, a monkey. And he loves to be around people, around children. He loves to talk to people. Much of this is because of my father, who is a beautiful leader, and because of my mother, too. It is a matter of ego. You become self-centered by saying, 'I am the one.' Dikembe would not say that. Being isolated is not the African way. For instance, Dikembe calls me three or four times a week. My wife? She is American. She calls her brother two or three times a month."
The tall man is starving. The tall man is contemplative. Riding along in a car he gazes out the window to get a glimpse of the world from Pikes Peak, the 14,110-foot mountain tip that pierces the sky 15 miles west of Colorado Springs. He scarfs down two chili dogs, a bucket of popcorn and a large cup of lemonade. Temporarily sated, he gets to what's on his mind.
"These new rules," he says dejectedly. "They'll end up with two guys from each team playing two-on-two and everybody else fouled out."
At practice today the league's chief referee, Darrel Garretson, had lectured the Nuggets on what to expect in this year's kinder, gentler NBA. Rule changes, he said, would severely limit zoning by centers, hand checking, forearming and even trash-talking. This last one put Mutombo over the top. Take away the rough stuff that he likes. Even take away the zone, which he also likes. But the communication? "I didn't take English just in the class," Mutombo wants all to know. "I took it in the street."
To Garretson he said, "You're taking the fun out of the game!"
"You're telling me I can't say, 'Get that——out of here'?" the player continued.
"Yes," Garretson said.
"How about, 'Don't bring that——in here'?"
Not that either. The fine for the first technical foul would be $500, Garretson added.
"Oh, god," said Mutombo.
"Ejection on the first technical: $1,000," said the ref.
By the end of the meeting Mutombo was a shattered man. He wouldn't even be allowed to waggle his finger like a windshield wiper in the face of a rejectee, his signature move.
"Get me a sofa," he moaned.
Now he just stares at the vista, at Colorado below. He gets out of the car and picks up some snow. He loves Denver, the Mile High City, loves the Nugget T-shirts that say MT. MUTOMBO—5,287 FEET. But at this moment he is reminded of another peeve.
"About a month after I got to Georgetown, in 1987, it snowed. Students are knocking on my door, on my window, saying, 'Mutombo, come out! Snow! Mutombo!' They were so stupid. They thought I came from the bush, not from a city of four million. They thought I'd never seen snow. I told them they were crazy, that there is snow on the mountains in eastern Zaire all the time. I don't blame the students, I blame the American system of education."
The system has affected even his big buddies in the NBA, he discovered. On a charity trip to Africa last summer he had to explain to fellow journeyers and Georgetown alums Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning that he had never seen large animals outside a zoo. "They watched Tarzan when they were growing up," Mutombo says in disgust. "National Geographic never tried to show the other side of Africa either."
On the way down the mountain he is cheered a bit, thinking of the rule changes and how they apply in their uniform stupidity even to the hated SuperSonics. "It's going to shut up Gary Payton," he says. Then he dozes off.
Last summer marked the third time since he joined the NBA that Mutombo visited Africa as an emissary of goodwill. Each time, he went under the auspices of CARE, the international relief agency, and with the blessing of the NBA. He put on basketball clinics for kids in some of the toughest, poorest parts of the world. Along with him on this year's trip, to South Africa, went Ewing, Mourning and Jazz guard John Crotty—all at Mutombo's behest—and various NBA officials, including commissioner David Stern.
Mutombo earned nothing for the trip, nor did he pocket a cent for the earlier visits, which took him to Zambia, Kenya and Somalia while most NBA veterans stayed in the good old U.S.A., kicking back, playing golf, counting up the money from their camp endorsements. Mutombo had gotten near his homeland, but because of civil unrest in Zaire and fears that a majestic-sized returning millionaire might be an easy target, he has not returned to his country since leaving for college seven years ago. "Although I am from Zaire, I consider all of Africa my home and all Africans my people," he says. "On these visits I just try to give hope to people who have no hope. As my father always reminded me, you should remember where you come from, and you should always give something back."
The continent is so fertile, Mutombo says, his deep voice rising, and yet it is so poor. "If we can solve our problems, we can be rich," he states. And yet what he has seen mostly are refugee camps, slums, war victims, disease, bulldozers pushing corpses into graves, suffering, impossibility. "The horror!" Conrad wrote in Heart of Darkness. "The horror!" And yet, Mutombo points out, there is the glory. Last summer he actually ate dinner in Capetown with Nelson Mandela, a man he reckons to be a modern-day saint. Imagine, Mutombo says, Mandela was in prison for 27 years, almost as long as Mutombo has been alive, because of his resistance to apartheid. And now he is president of the country that imprisoned him.
In a column he wrote for USA Today this past August, Mutombo said, "My love for this land, where my family and childhood friends remain, is as strong as ever, perhaps even more so because of what I see each time I return. I must go and help my people."
While sitting in a van in the slums of Soweto this summer, Mutombo was besieged by children who wanted to see his mammoth shoes. Smiling, the center stuck his feet out of the window, to a great roar of approval. "He's an entertaining young man," says Stern, who witnessed the display. "I can't say enough nice things about him."
Nugget president Tim Leiweke opens a folder to an aerial photo of the west side of Denver, the area containing McNichols Arena and Mile High Stadium, homes to the Nuggets and the NFL's Denver Broncos, respectively. He points to a nearby section of land where the Nuggets plan to build their new arena, an elaborate den with luxury skyboxes and access to everything from Denver's new light-rail train system to the city's first public aquarium. Next to the arena there will be an enormous amusement park, a children's museum, restaurants and TV and fiber-optics centers to film and broadcast just about anything that might happen on the premises. All of this must be built efficiently, rapidly and with no tax subsidy from the public. Why?
"O.K., you look at Denver," says Leiweke, the young marketing wizard who came to the Nuggets in 1991 from the Timberwolves. "It's the 18th-largest TV market in the league. Then you look at Dikembe, and you say, 'How do we lock him up long term?' " Currently Mutombo is in the fourth year of a five-year, $13.7 million contract. "You have to use the synergy of sports, entertainment and communications," Leiweke continues. "What the arena and entertainment park means is an opportunity to remain competitive. The fiber optics gives us a chance for pay-per-view. Without the added revenue streams, it all comes back to ticket prices, and we'd just price ourselves out of the market."
The taxpayers can't be relied on for help, because they're a little steamed these days over a city airport that they financed for several billion dollars and that can't be opened because its machines haven't figured out how to move luggage without destroying it. And Mutombo is necessary because, well, without him the Nuggets are the L.A. Clippers. Or—worse—they're the Nuggets of four years ago. The honor! That was Paul West-head's lab experiment that finished 20-62 while trying to become the first NBA team to score 200 points in a game. The closest the Nuggets came to that goal was allowing the Phoenix Suns to score 107 points against them in one half. So dismal were matters that in a 20-month span from 1989 to 1991, the Nugget organization fired four presidents. Team p.r. chief Tommy Sheppard keeps a thick file of clippings from that era, entitled "Negative Press." Its highlight: a Rocky Mountain News column stating, "Credibility? There is none.... And there's no hope, none at all, of ever recapturing it."
This is not turf the Nuggets would like to revisit. General manager Bernie Bickerstaff, who had taken a flier on the raw Mutombo with the fourth pick of the 1991 draft, hired Issel in 1992, and things have headed upward ever since. But coaches come and go—not agile big dudes. "Look," says Mutombo's agent, David Falk. "If you take Gheorghe Muresan half seriously, what do you think of Mutombo, who can change games? Where are you going to find another Mutombo? Where?"
Falk continues with his analysis. "The identity of a team is a critical thing. When you get into concepts like theme parks, you need a clearly identifiable person to build around. And what is that worth? Just look at the Lakers. Who are they? The Celtics. Who are they? You used to know, but not anymore."
The scary point here is that if Mutombo is the Nuggets, he might break the Denver mint getting what Falk thinks he deserves. So, is Leiweke just going to shove all the new money straight to the tall man?
"I didn't say that," he says laughing. At this moment Mutombo himself walks into the president's office, bending at the waist to duck under the door frame, and sits in Leiweke's chair.
"As I was saying," continues the president, "he's a jerk and a rotten apple."
Mutombo nods and rocks in the chair. "I like this chair," he says.
"You want it?" asks Leiweke. "You want my problems?" Just a few days ago the owner of the Milwaukee Bucks, Herb Kohl, sarcastically offered to give holdout first-pick Glenn Robinson the Buck franchise instead of the $100 million contract Robinson was demanding.
Mutombo smiles. "I think the NBA is in a good position right now," he says. "The company you work for should make money and then make the workers satisfied. Pride is the thing. The Lakers and Celtics and Bulls had pride. They didn't play for money. Magic, Larry, Michael—look at what they made. They played for pride."
This is soothing to Leiweke's ears, but mostly he is amused at simply having his star employee sit there so casually and just talk like a regular human. Mutombo goes on to say that his parents are short—father, 6'2"; mom, 5'11"—and that even his brothers are short: 6'10", 6'9", 6'7", 6'5", etc. He laughs. "Ha! Ha! Ha!"
Mutombo admits that as a boy in Kinshasa he sometimes found it tough to be so tall. "I didn't want to go to the market after a while," he says. "People would run away. 'He is here!' They thought I was a ghost, from another planet, not a kid from the neighborhood. It would make me sad. It was very hard for me. I'm walking, and 10 blocks ahead they're all waiting. 'He's here!' One day our newspaper had me on the cover with the headline THE GIRAFFE OF KINSHASA."
Because of his height Mutombo had trouble even in school. "We have this belief in African culture," he tells Leiweke, "that your child should not grow up and look down on your head. Teachers thought I had no respect because of that."
The two talk on, just chatting, until finally Leiweke says he'd better get back to work: "I've got to build Mutombo World, you know."
"Where do you want to go?" Mutombo asks his guest. The guest shrugs.
"We can go to the mall," says Mutombo. The mall it is.
Mutombo is such a social being that he walks his dog, Rocky, every morning mostly so he can talk to his neighbors. Yesterday outside the clinic where the Nuggets were getting their physicals, Mutombo saw a cabdriver he knows. "My neighbor!" he cried, waving at the car. But the man didn't see the basketball player and drove on.
Here at the Cherry Creek Mall in Denver, Mutombo sits on a bench in the middle of the shopping area and goes largely unnoticed. Sitting, he is all folded legs. For the interviewer's convenience he spells his name on a tablet: Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Diken 's Jean Jacque Wa Mutombo. It's quite a handle.
"In Africa friends and relatives can come to the hospital and give you a name if they want," he explains. He chuckles. "If you talk to my father, ask him why he named me Dikembe." Then he tells why. "Dikembe means plaintain or banana. Because when I was little I was soft. If they sat me up, I fell this way or that way. Ha! Ha! Ha!"
Mutombo was supposed to have married a 23-year-old medical student named Michelle Roberts this past summer. But the wedding was abruptly canceled when Roberts would not agree to Mutombo's proposed prenuptial contract. She bailed out of the wedding extravaganza, which was to include 14 guests from Africa as well as commissioner Stern—who found out about the cancellation just minutes before he was to board a plane to Washington, D.C., for the event.
"I believe in prenuptials," says Mutombo, not pleased to discuss this incident at all. "I see so many people here from broken homes. I judge myself by the society I live in, and I see the things that happen. The only way you can see your house is to go outside and look at it. My brother Tshitenge is an artist at Southeastern Missouri University. He doesn't sit next to his canvas. He will put it 30 feet away and observe it for an hour."
"The press tried to portray me wrong, insult me. They said I wanted three wives. Why would I want three wives in the United States?" On the subject of child custody, he says, "I believe that any child needs a man nearby. It doesn't have to be the father. But an uncle, a grandfather. A man's voice is different."
A woman with a camera approaches and asks if she can take a photo of Mutombo's shoes. He says she can take all the pictures she wants of his shoes in the Nuggets' apparel store down the walk. "She didn't even want my face," he says after she has left. He is hurt. "This country...."
In a cookie store he buys a half-dozen cookies, signs a few autographs and chats with a pregnant woman, telling her, "They have nice baby Nugget uniforms down there."
In the parking garage Mutombo ducks rhythmically for the cement girders that threaten his head. A small Asian man looks up at him.
"Can you fit in your car?" the man asks Mutombo.
"Can you fit in your car?" Mutombo replies.
The tall man from Africa drives off slowly, leaving the mall, this most American of structures, behind. In the resulting void he leaves the interviewer with a pair of vibrant images. The first is a group portrait of Mutombo and 65 three-year-olds in a Soweto classroom, his hands touching some of their heads like leaves touching acorns, everyone singing an African nursery rhyme.
The second image is of Mutombo performing in a play called La Ville with his college French drama club, Les Battleurs. To perform in the play, which the Georgetown students put on for nearly a month at the French embassy, Mutombo had to scurry out of basketball practice at seven, shower, get a lift to the embassy, get into costume and have his makeup applied before the curtain rose at 7:30. In the drama he played "someone who came to save the people of the town. I was like an angel."
"I had wings."
So there stood this giant in makeup, with wings, in a school play.
"O.K. Nobody has seen an angel, have they?"
Not in a while, at least.
"Then who can say how tall an angel is?"
It's a helluva question.