The children are clamoring behind the tall man as he sits on the bench icing his knees. Practice has just ended for the Denver Nuggets here in the gym at the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and the tall man looks irritated. "I know you're back there," he says without turning around. "I will sign over by the rail when I am done."
He looks down at his knees or, more correctly, straight ahead at his knees, since they are almost at his eye level. The knees ache already, and the season is just starting; tall men take a beating from the shorter folks in this world. There is more rustling behind him.
Now the big man turns. Several little people look at him wide-eyed.
"Don't you speak English?" he booms at them. "Should I say it in French?" Children scatter like sprayed bugs.
The tall man finally stands up and walks to the railing. The children are there, unsure of what to expect. They don't know that the tall man could tell them to scram in French—or Spanish or Portuguese or Lingala or Tshiluba or three other African dialects. The tall man looks down at the crowd and then begins to sign autographs for the youngsters and to chat with them, his voice deep as a tuba in a well.
Something catches his fancy, and he laughs abruptly: "Ha! Ha! Ha!" It is a remarkable laugh, an honest, no-strings-attached basso profundo laugh. A triple honk. Somebody stepping three times on a great big duck. "Ha! Ha! Ha!" he laughs again, and there is not a person in the gym who isn't smiling.
Dikembe Mutombo, the Nuggets' 7'2", 255-pound fourth-year center out of Kinshasa, Zaire, by way of Georgetown University and the global basketball network, is a remarkable man. A fellow who is so tall, with arms that, spread wide, cover almost 7½ feet from fingertip to fingertip, is remarkable just standing there. But it's the fiber of this literally fibrous man (body fat once measured at 1.9%) that is most unusual. How often do you hear an NBA star laughing? Not snickering because an unwanted coach was fired. Or chortling because a million-dollar escalator clause just kicked in. Or woofing because some foe just received a fast-break Estée Lauder full facial makeover. But plain old laughing because something was plain old funny.
At age 18, Mutombo could hardly find basketball shoes to fit him in all of Africa. "My shoes were size 17 as a freshman at Georgetown," he says in the Nuggets' locker room, "18 as a sophomore, 19 as a junior and 20"—their current status—"as a senior." He and an observer appraise a single empty Adidas sneaker the size of a mailbox. The visitor lifts the shoe, thinking that with a sail and a small rudder the craft could rule the high seas. "It's a good thing you didn't continue on to graduate school," says the visitor.
Mutombo's head tilts back, his eyes close, and here it comes again. "Ha! Ha! Ha!"
It's arguable that no professional basketball player from this country could be like Mutombo. To perform so ferociously on the court as a shot blocker, a rebounder and a guy who, as Nugget coach Dan Issel puts it, "can clog up the whole middle," and then to be gentle, considerate, learned, vivacious, charitable and—dare we say it?—cheerful off the court...well, that isn't the American way. Our pro athletes are hybrid minotaurs: part cranky old men, part six-year-old boys. They are lost somewhere between gluttony and yearning. A man has to feel very secure to be able to laugh freely. A sweet, laughing American-born NBA superstar? Go ahead, name one.