As Dikembe Mutombo was talking with a reporter in the Atlanta
Hawks' locker room after a preseason game, forward Christian
Laettner waved a stat sheet at him and chortled. "Hey, Dikembe,"
he said, "look at this. I got three blocks tonight. I'm in this
race"--meaning the one for the team lead in blocked shots.
Mutombo, who has led the NBA in blocks for the last three
seasons and averaged 4.48 in 1995-96, regarded Laettner with an
indulgent smile. "Three blocks?" he said. "That is not bad for
you." Then he continued telling the interviewer about how
thrilled he was to be in Atlanta, playing for a coach who wants
him to do more than block shots and rebound.
In Denver last season Mutombo became increasingly disenchanted
with Nuggets coach Bernie Bickerstaff. Mutombo and Bickerstaff's
predecessor, Dan Issel, had admired each other because Mutombo
was one of the few Nuggets players with the kind of work ethic
that was Issel's trademark in his Hall of Fame career. "Mutombo
works his tail off every time he steps on the floor," Issel
liked to say. But where Issel made Mutombo an integral part of
the offense, Bickerstaff isolated him. Mutombo's scoring
average, which had been as high as 16.6 in his rookie season of
1991-92, fell to 11.0 last season.
"I was not allowed to participate in the offense, to touch the
ball, to even set a pick," Mutombo says. "I was told to run down
the floor and then go stand over there. What good is that?" Not
much, which is one reason that the Nuggets won only 35 games
last season and failed to make the playoffs.
But Hawks coach Lenny Wilkens plans to work with Mutombo on his
footwork and his moves in hopes of making him an inside force
that must be reckoned with. "We're talking about mechanics,"
says Wilkens, who adds that he wants Mutombo "to turn to the
basket and look for a little hook shot or a drop step. He can
also give you that little eight-foot shot, and I want him to run
the floor because he gets down the floor very quickly."
Mutombo's pride is as towering as his 7'2" body, so when he
learned that he wasn't in the Nuggets' plans for this season, he
and his agent, David Falk, began to evaluate the several NBA
teams that had expressed an interest in signing the center. The
Lakers flirted with Mutombo, but he knew that was only a backup
plan in case they couldn't sign Shaquille O'Neal. The Celtics,
the Pistons and the Bucks made pitches, but Mutombo didn't want
to play in a cold-weather city.
Finally, on July 15, Falk called Mutombo in Atlanta, where he
was lending support to the women's Olympic basketball team from
his native Zaire, to tell him that an exciting offer was on the
table. "Dikembe," said Falk, "you are in the right city because
this is where you are going to play. You are going to be a
Hawk." Atlanta was offering a five-year deal worth $56 million,
but Mutombo didn't agree to it until he called Steve Smith, the
Hawks' shooting guard who at the time was also testing the
Mutombo and Smith had become acquainted when they were college
stars in the late 1980s and early '90s--Mutombo at Georgetown,
Smith at Michigan State--and Mutombo's belief that they are
kindred spirits was only strengthened during his conversation
with Smith, when he learned that they had both been married on
June 15 and had honeymooned in Maui at the same time. "Steve,"
Mutombo said, "you tell me they must have a big man in Atlanta
for you to stay. I am your big man. Don't leave." And Smith
didn't, re-signing with the Hawks a week after his talk with
Mutombo's presence in the middle should help make the Hawks one
of the league's premier defensive teams. In addition, Laettner,
the noted shot blocker, will move to his natural position at
power forward, where his passing and ball handling should allow
Mutombo to get the ball more often in scoring position. This
isn't to say, of course, that Mutombo will ever be an offensive
force like his fellow Georgetown alums Patrick Ewing of the
Knicks and Alonzo Mourning of the Heat. But at least he won't be
someone whom defenses can virtually ignore.
"Sometimes," says Mutombo, "you have to leave home and start
over. I hope to do that here."