Mutombo, Dikembe 1966–
Dikembe Mutombo 1966–
Professional basketball player
Dikembe Mutombo never picked up a basketball until he was in his late teens. He never contemplated a career in American professional basketball until he was a senior in college. Nevertheless, the seven-foot-plus Zairean player has emerged in the 1990s as the star center of the National Basketball Association’s (NBA) Denver Nuggets. Like other professional players of African origin before him, Mutombo has become a certified national hero in his home country while gaining fame in the international arena. Rocky Mountain News correspondent Art Spander called Mutombo “an African prince come to America, a man of regal bearing and great presence who still struggles with our language but has adapted so marvelously to our game it is his game.”
Mutombo burst into the NBA in 1991 as a rookie phenomenon, performing way above expectations for the delighted Nuggets staff. He has continued to be a solid player ever since, especially in the offensive rebound and shot-blocking categories. Sports Illustrated contributor Leigh Montville described Mutombo as “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.”
The Mutombo story begins in Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire. In that sprawling city of 2.5 million people, Dikembe Mutombo was born on June 25, 1966. His full name—Dikembe Mutombo Mpo-londo Mukamba Jean Jacque Wamutombo—was shortened long before he arrived in America; today friends simply call him “Deke.” One of nine children of a school principal, Mutombo lived in a comfortable, middle-class home and attended the school where his father worked. His parents were dedicated to both education and religious ideals, and the whole family attended church together each Sunday.
All of Mutombo’s family members are tall, but Dikembe grew even taller than the rest. In grade school he towered over his peers. By high school age he was nearing seven feet in height and showed no sign of stopping there. Like his other brothers, he enjoyed athletics, but as a teen he played soccer and practiced martial arts as his specialties. “I knew what the NBA was,” Mutombo told the Rocky Mountain News in 1992. “I knew it was professional basketball since I was kid, but I didn’t want to play basketball until I was 18 because I just didn’t like it. I didn’t like the game. I thought it was too physical. My parents
Born Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean lacque Wamulombo, June 25, 1966, in Kinshasa, Zaire; son of Mutombo (a school principal) and Biamba Dikembe. Education: Georgetown University, B.A., 1991.
Professional basketball player, 1991—. Chosen in first round of 1991 National Basketball Association (NBA) draft by Denver Nuggets; center for Nuggets, 1991—.
Selected awards: Named Big East defensive player of the year and member of All-Big East, 1991; named to NBA All-Star Team, 1992.
Addresses: c/o Denver Nuggets, McNichols Sports Arena, 1635 Clay St., Denver, CO 80204.
ended up by forcing me to play basketball. That’s why I always thank them a lot.”
Finally, the teenaged Mutombo was so tall and strong that his father and older brother insisted he try basketball. Reluctantly, he agreed. On his very first basketball outing, he slipped during a jumping drill and opened a gash in his chin, leaving a scar that is still visible today. More determined than ever not to continue with basketball, he clashed with his parents and brother in a heated argument. They finally prevailed, and he returned to the court. “I’m so proud of my father…. [He knew what] was going to be the best for his son,” Mutombo recalled in the Rocky Mountain News. “By choosing to play basketball, I end up becoming, I should say, rich.”
Not only did Mutombo lack the long years of youthful preparation that go into the creation of an NBA player, he also lacked the proper conditions under which to play. The courts he learned on, he told the Rocky Mountain News, were “always outdoor. Cement courts. If you fell down, you got make sure that you get up. If you don’t get up, we see you next season. That’s the kind of basketball I play.” Even after he won a position on Zaire’s national team at age 19, he still played on concrete outdoor courts that were dimly lit by clusters of electric light bulbs. The biggest crowd that saw him play in those years numbered about 2,000.
Both Mutombo and his brother Ilo began to consider what basketball might do for them careerwise. Mutombo wanted to be a doctor; he was a good student with high grades at the Institute Boboto in Zaire. After playing some time for the Zaire national team—and traveling across Africa for games—he approached some visiting American college coaches about the possibility of studying in the United States. The coaches offered a little advice, but Herman Henning, a U.S. Embassy official stationed in Zaire, made a bigger impact. Henning saw Mutombo play for the Zaire national team and offered to help. Henning thought Mutombo might prosper in an American college under a patient coach who had also played center. Georgetown University’s John Thompson came to mind immediately, and in 1987 Dikembe Mutombo found himself on a plane to the United States, with a scholarship to attend Georgetown. At the same time, his brother earned a scholarship to Southern Indiana University, also to play basketball.
A less ambitious man might have been overwhelmed by the odds that faced Mutombo. He could speak French— and a number of other languages and African dialects— but not a word of English when he arrived at Georgetown. He had little knowledge of basic basketball strategy and even less finesse on the court. And during his first year in America, one of his favorite brothers back in Zaire was diagnosed with a fatal brain cancer. The numerous pressures on Mutombo were intense, but he persevered. He studied English for six hours each day with a tutor, then attended his college classes. He played intramural basketball and began his tutelage under the demanding Thompson. For moral support, he telephoned his brother in Indiana; he could not afford to call his parents in Africa.
As a sophomore at Georgetown, Mutombo mostly sat on the bench. The starting center that season was a freshman phenomenon named Alonzo Mourning. Mutombo was learning the game, however, and by his junior year he began to see more playing time. The major boost to his career came when Thompson decided to use him and Mourning at the same time. The two players became known as the “Twin Towers,” and Mutombo began to put some creditable numbers on the board. As a junior he averaged 10.7 points with 10.5 rebounds per game. He led the Hoyas in field goal percentage (.709) and was fourth in the nation for blocked shots, with 128 on the season. In his senior year, Mutombo was named Big East defensive player of the year after he once again ranked fourth nationally in blocked shots and came in sixth in rebounds, with 12.2 per game.
Although the relationship between Mutombo and Thompson was sometimes stormy, a deep bond developed between the two. In 1991, during Mutombo’s senior season, the Hoya coach called his African star a “filling station,” the type of player who could keep a coach invigorated. Thompson told the Washington Post that Mutombo “has come out of a different way of living, a different system of life. It’s easier to communicate and to deal with him without him being fragile.” Thompson added: “He has a refreshing freshness about him … because he has not been Americanized since he was in elementary school, with somebody recruiting him or somebody trying to convince him that he’s the best thing that’s happened to the game since the tennis shoe was invented.”
Mutombo had few aspirations to an NBA career prior to his senior year at Georgetown. He had majored in political science and linguistics and had undertaken internships with a U.S. congressman and a computer programming firm in preparation for a public service career. “I did not think I would be a professional basketball player,” Mutombo told Sports Illustrated. “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.”
Others were convinced that Mutombo could play professionally as well. He was expected to be chosen very high in the 1991 NBA draft, despite the fact that most scouts thought he would take several years to develop an NBA-caliber game. “Can Mutombo—an endearing, comical, talkative, intelligent 25-year-old, become an NBA star?” asked Rocky Mountain News reporter Clay Latimer just prior to the draft. “He only has two moves on offense: a crude hook and a thunderous dunk. His passing, though, is immensely better than a year ago. He can block shots, too; he blocked ’em at Georgetown with his hands, his elbow, even his armpit…. And the upward curve of his development steepened last year.” In a glittering draft ceremony at Madison Square Garden late in June of 1991, Mutombo was chosen in the first round (fourth overall) by the Nuggets, who seemed thrilled that he was still available when their turn came to choose.
Mutombo was equally thrilled, mainly because his parents had flown from Zaire to attend the draft-day events with him. After his name was chosen, he embraced both parents enthusiastically and told reporters: “I think now they’ll see me much more often.” He also told the Rocky Mountain News: “I’ve been to Denver and I love the place. I can’t wait to go back and meet more of the people and see the mountains…. I am a great defensive player. This will bring defense back to Denver.”
Team coaches and general managers traditionally predict great things for their first-round draft choices. More often than not, these predictions exceed reality by leaps and bounds. In Mutombo’s case, however, predictions fell short of reality. He quickly established himself as a team leader for the Nuggets. Leigh Montville noted in Sports Illustrated that Mutombo “has been a joy to Denver…. A million things can happen [in the future]. 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 not get much better.”
As a rookie, Mutombo finished third in the NBA in rebounding, with 12.3 rebounds per game. He led the Nuggets in scoring in 19 games and averaged 16.6 points per game through 71 games. Perhaps most importantly, he was the only rookie to play in the 1992 NBA All-Star Game, where he scored four points as a reserve. Mutombo finished the 1991-92 season second in voting for NBA Rookie of the Year to Larry Johnson of the Charlotte Hornets.
The seasons since have not seen any diminution of Mutombo’s desire. “I am fighting to put my name in front in lights,” he exclaimed in Sports Illustrated. “I want, in every town, for people to say, ’Mutombo is coming tonight.’ To do that, I have to suffer.” The “suffering” includes spending much of his free time with a California-based marketing firm that is developing commercial endorsements, athletic wear, and other moneymaking projects for Mutombo. The player has already achieved major celebrity status in the western states, as well as in all parts of Africa—and his $13.7 million contract has made life easier for his whole family. “In Africa now, they start to understand the amount of money paid,” he told the Rocky Mountain News. “I have become very, very smart about this. But the money helps your friends and your family. I am not trying to become Americanized, because [in] American society when you succeed you succeed for yourself. But in African society, you succeed for your family. People helped me when I grow up. I cannot stop helping people now.”
Mutombo, who was one of the few 1991 NBA first-round draftees with a bachelor’s degree, has made all other career aspirations secondary to his major goal—making a name for himself as one of the all-time great NBA players. “I really don’t compare myself to anybody,” he concluded in the Rocky Mountain News, “but I have a dream to reach the level of players like Patrick [Ewing], Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Bill Russell. I have a dream to be like them because they are legends. Even though [some] are gone today, they are remembered. I want to be remembered.”
Mutombo’s performance in the 1994 NBA playoffs brought him the recognition he was craving. Entering the Western Conference opening-round playoff series, Denver had a mediocre 42-40 record. But, in a remarkable display of teamwork, the Nuggets managed to eliminate the No. 1-seeded Seattle Supersonics in the fifth game of the best-of-five series. “I can’t believe it,” Mutombo exclaimed after the final game, according to an Associated Press report. “We really didn’t expect to win this series. We just wanted to make a good showing.” The next week, Sports Illustrated marvelled at Mutombo’s ability to “swat away every shot in sight” and dubbed him “the league’s leading shot blocker.” The young Denver team then entered the Western Conference Semifinals against top-ranked Utah. Although the Nuggets didn’t win the series, they did force a seventh game in a best-of-seven contest, making Mutombo and his teammates the talk of the NBA at the close of the 1994 season.
Rocky Mountain News, June 27, 1991, p. 67; June 30, 1991, p. 55; December 14, 1991, p. 87; January 26, 1992, p. 62; February 8, 1992, p. 80; February 3, 1993, p. 58; March 13, 1993, p. 78; March 17, 1993, p. 59.
Sports Illustrated, December 9, 1991, p. 86; April 25, 1994; May 16, 1994, p. 37.
Washington Post, February 10, 1989, p. B-1; January 17, 1991, p. B-1; November 29, 1991, p. B-1.
Additional information for this profile was taken from an Associated Press wire report dated May 8, 1994.
American basketball player
At seven-feet-two-inches, Dikembe Mutombo is a force to be reckoned with under the basket. Known for his strong defense and exceptional shot-blocking abilities, Mutombo is the only player in the history of the National Basketball Association (NBA) to be named Defensive Player of the Year four times. After playing in Denver, Atlanta, and Philadelphia, Mutombo was traded to the New Jersey Nets in 2002.
Growing Up in Africa
Dikembe Mutombo, whose full name is Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean Jacque Wamutombo, was born on June 25, 1966, in Kinshasa, Congo (formerly known as Zaire). Mutombo grew up in a six-bedroom home in a comfortable neighborhood with his four brothers and two sisters. As members of the Luba tribe, Mutombo's family belonged to Zaire's upper class. His father, who was educated at the Sorbonne in France, was the director of the city's high schools. Kinshasa, the capital city of 2.5 million, had a very high poverty and crime rate, and Mutombo's parents raised their children in a strict environment that stressed education, respect, and faith.
Growing to nearly seven feet tall during his high school years, Mutombo gave little consideration to playing basketball. He excelled as a soccer goalie and also practiced martial arts. Finally his father insisted that Mutombo try basketball, which the teenager did with reluctance.
However, after cracking his chin on the concrete court during his first practice, leaving him with a still-visible scar, Mutombo was ready more than ever to quit. Only after losing an intense argument with his parents did Mutombo return to the court. Later, he would heap praise on his parents for insisting that they knew what was best for their son.
Overcoming his initial awkwardness on the court, Mutombo was soon playing for the Zaire national team with his brother Ilo. For two years Mutombo traveled with the national team and learned the game. He came to the attention of a U.S. Embassy employee while he was reading the newspapers posted in the windows of the embassy. Herman Henning, a former coach, introduced Mutombo to John Thompson, the coach of the Georgetown University Hoyas. Soon, Mutombo was on his way to Washington, D.C.
Develops Basketball Skills
Mutombo was offered an academic scholarship to Georgetown, where he planned to study medicine, become a doctor, and return to the Congo. During his first year in Washington, D.C., he did not play basketball, instead focusing his energies on learning English. During his sophomore year he joined the team, but played second fiddle to future NBA star Alonzo Mourning. Mutombo began to develop into a legitimate basketball player during his junior year, averaging 10.7 points per game and leading his team in rebounds. By his senior year, Mutombo, now seven-feet-two-inches tall, was garnering the attention of NBA scouts. He finished his final year averaging 15.2 points and 12.2 rebounds per game and was named the Big East Defensive Player of the Year. Dikembe, who speaks English, French, Spanish, Portuguese and five African dialects, graduated with a degree in linguistics and diplomacy.
In 1991 25-year-old Mutombo, the oldest player in the NBA draft, was selected as the fourth overall pick by the Denver Nuggets. Because he lacked experience on the floor, critics doubted that Mutombo could play at the professional level, at least not for several years. The Nuggets were willing to take that chance, and it proved to be a very wise gamble. During his rookie year Mutombo finished third in the NBA in rebounding, with an average of 13.2 boards per game. The only rookie to play in the NBA All-Star game, Mutombo came in second to Charlotte Hornets' Larry Johnson in voting for Rookie of the Year.
Developing into one of the best defensive players in the nation, Mutombo was named NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 1995, after leading the league in blocked shots for two consecutive years. And still, he continued to improve, especially on the defensive end, finishing the 1995-96 season as the league's third leading rebounder (11.8 per game) He led the league in blocked shots for four consecutive seasons, from 1992-93 to 1995-96, with 3.5, 4.1, 3.9, and 4.5 blocks per game, respectively. Despite his unmatched success on the defensive end, Mutombo was growing increasing unhappy in Denver. Each year his scoring declined slightly until by the end of the 1995-96 season he was only averaging 11 points per game.
Frustrated with being ignored as an offensive force, coupled with another dismal season that produced only thirty-five wins and no playoff berth, at the end of the 1995-96 season Mutombo exercised his free agency and signed a five-year, $56 million contract with the Atlanta Hawks. In his first year with the Hawks he averaged 13.3 points per game and finished second in the NBA in rebounds (11.6) and blocks (3.3) per game. In 1998, racking up 11.4 rebounds and 3.4 blocks per game on the season, Mutombo was singled out as the league's best defensive player for the second consecutive year and for the third time in his career. In the same year, Mutombo was named as a starter for the NBA All-Star game for the first time in his career. The following year he reached a career high season average of 14.1 rebounds per game.
Mutombo played with the Hawks until traded to the Philadelphia 76ers just before the trading deadline in February of 2001. Joining an already successful team, Mutombo continued to dominate on defense. In May of 2001 he became the first player in NBA history to receive a fourth Defensive Player of the Year award. In the same year the 76ers made it into the finals of the NBA playoffs but fell to Shaquille O'Neal and the Los Angeles Lakers. It was the first time in Mutombo's career that he played in an NBA championship series.
In August of 2002, Mutombo was traded to the New Jersey Nets. Having played most of his career injury-free, Mutombo suffered a torn ligament in his right hand, which required surgery in early December, and placing the center on the injured list for the a good share of the remainder of the season. Before being sidelined, Mutombo had racked up a career total of more than 10,000 rebounds, 2,800 blocked shots, and 10,000 points.
|1966||Born June 25 in Kinshasa, Congo (formerly known as Zaire)|
|1987||Enrolls in Georgetown University on academic scholarship|
|1988||Joins Georgetown Hoyas basketball team|
|1989-91||Becomes star defensive player on Hoyas team|
|1991||Selected in the National Basketball Association draft by the Denver Nuggets|
|1994||Tours Africa as an international spokesperson for CARE|
|1996||Traded to the Atlanta Hawks|
|1999||Establishes the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation|
|2001||Traded to the Philadelphia 76ers|
|2002||Traded to the New Jersey Nets; torn ligament in right hand requires surgery|
Awards and Accomplishments
|1990||Second Team All Big East and co-Big East Defensive Player of the Year|
|1991||Third Team All American and First Team All Big East; selected fourth overall in the National Basketball Association (NBA) draft by Denver Nuggets|
|1992||All Rookie First Team and NBA All Star|
|1993-96||Led league in blocks per game with 4.1, 3.9, and 4.5, respectively|
|1995||Defensive Player of the Year|
|1995-98||NBA All Star|
|1997-98||Defensive Player of the Year and First Team All Defense|
|1999||Received the Henry P. Iba Citizen Athlete Award|
|2000-01||Led league in rebounds with 14.1 and 13.5 rebounds per game, respectively|
|2000-02||NBA All Star|
|2001||First Team All Defense|
Mutombo's success on the court has not made him forget his family or his homeland. He and his wife Rose have a daughter, Carrie Biamba Wamutumbo, and a son, Jean Jacques Dikembe Mutumbo Mplombo, Jr. They are the adoptive parents of four children, belonging to two of Mutombo's deceased brothers. Along with caring for his family financially, Mutombo also gives generously to his homeland. In 1994 he traveled Africa as an international spokesperson for CARE, and in 1999 he established the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation to provide funding for humanitarian assistance in Congo. Already a national hero, his popularity increased in 1996 when he donated the money to provide the Congo national women's team with uniforms for the Olympic Games. In 1999 he contributed $3 million to help establish a new hospital in the country and provided $250,000 in medical supplies to existing hospitals.
|ATL: Atlanta Hawks; DEN: Denver Nuggets; PHIL: Philadelphia 76ers.|
Address: New Jersey Nets, 390 Murray Hill Parkway, E. Rutherford, New Jersey 07073. Email: [email protected]
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Sketch by Kari Bethel