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World Class
Rick Telander
November 07, 1994
Dikembe Mutombo, the outgoing Nugget center, makes a big impression in the paint and in faraway lands
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November 07, 1994

World Class

Dikembe Mutombo, the outgoing Nugget center, makes a big impression in the paint and in faraway lands

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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.

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