7 feet, 2 inches tall. Weighing in at 260 pounds. A big man, with a big name to match. In 1988, when Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo stepped onto the court at Georgetown barely speaking a word of English, the world had no idea what was coming. Last week, after 21 years of shot-blocking, finger-wagging and elbow-swinging, the NBA’s elder statesman is hanging up his sneakers. When Mutumbo got tangled up with Greg Oden in Tuesday’s playoff game he tore a tendon in his left knee, putting an end to his season, which he had already declared to be his last. In basketball terms, the loss is small. An aging backup big man who played a total of 116 minutes this season. However, what Mutumbo has meant to the league can’t be measured in pure basketball terms.
Throughout his career, Deke has certainly had his moments on the court. Basketball fans won’t soon forget the image of a young Mutumbo lying on the ground, ball clenched in his hands after his Nuggets upset the top-seed Sonics (the first time in NBA history an 8 seed beat a 1). As for me, I started cheering for Mutumbo in 2001 when he helped Allen Iverson carry the Sixers to the NBA Finals. I’d never been much of an NBA fan before that, but watching Iverson dash around the court and bounce off big men, and watching Dikembe swat shots and give indecipherable interviews, I fell in love with that team. We can also talk about his four defensive player of the year awards, and discuss the fact that Mount Mutumbo was inexplicably productive as a 41 year-old filling in for Yao Ming last season. Certainly, we can talk all day about the uniqueness of Dikembe’s defensive prowess and longevity. None of that, though, is what really defines the man.
In an instant-information age fueled by ESPN and the internet, sports stars are held under a more intense microscope than ever before. We see 100s of stories every year about guys like Stephon Marbury, Pacman Jones, Barry Bonds and the rest. Stories in which the athlete is the bad guy, the self-absorbed narcissist who makes the common sports fan want to vomit. While this is certainly not indicative of all athletes, it’s a rare athlete who uses his position to really make a dramatic difference in the world. In light of this, you can’t help but admire Dikembe Mutumbo. Despite his accomplishments, Mutumbo never forgot where he came from, and never took for granted the gifts he’d been blessed with. In 1997, he started the Dikembe Mutumbo Foundation with the goal of providing improved health care for Mutumbo’s native Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2001, they broke ground on the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital and Research Center, a $29 million project dedicated to the memory of Dikembe’s mother. Dikembe himself has personally donated around $19 million to the hospital, which officially opened in early 2007. The accolades he’s received for his humanitarian work are too many to list, but you can find some of them here, including the President’s Service Award. It’s easy enough for some of these guys to throw money at a problem, but Mutumbo has truly invested his life in serving others, something truly unique for an athlete.
The NBA will miss Dikembe Mutumbo. We’ll miss his ability to turn back the clock and improbably remain a dominant rebounder at age 42. We’ll miss his jovial attitude and, of course, The Finger-Wag. Most of all, the league will miss the character and class he always brought with him. Thank you Dikembe, for being an enjoyable and inspiring athlete who gave us plenty of memories.
xphoenix87 is a contributing writer for BallerBlogger.com.