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!"