As Dikembe Mutombo was talking with a reporter in the Atlanta Hawks' locker room after a preseason game, forward Christian Laettner waved a stat sheet at him and chortled. "Hey, Dikembe," he said, "look at this. I got three blocks tonight. I'm in this race"—meaning the one for the team lead in blocked shots. Mutombo, who has led the NBA in blocks for the last three seasons and averaged 4.48 in 1995-96, regarded Laettner with an indulgent smile. "Three blocks?" he said. "That is not bad for you." Then he continued telling the interviewer about how thrilled he was to be in Atlanta, playing for a coach who wants him to do more than block shots and rebound.
In Denver last season Mutombo became increasingly disenchanted with Nuggets coach Bernie Bickerstaff. Mutombo and Bickerstaff's predecessor, Dan Issel, had admired each other because Mutombo was one of the few Nuggets players with the kind of work ethic that was Issel's trademark in his Hall of Fame career. " Mutombo works his tail off every time he steps on the floor," Issel liked to say. But where Issel made Mutombo an integral part of the offense, Bickerstaff isolated him. Mutombo's scoring average, which had been as high as 16.6 in his rookie season of 1991-92, fell to 11.0 last season.
"I was not allowed to participate in the offense, to touch the ball, to even set a pick," Mutombo says. "I was told to run down the floor and then go stand over there. What good is that?" Not much, which is one reason that the Nuggets won only 35 games last season and failed to make the playoffs.
But Hawks coach Lenny Wilkens plans to work with Mutombo on his footwork and his moves in hopes of making him an inside force that must be reckoned with. "We're talking about mechanics," says Wilkens, who adds that he wants Mutombo "to turn to the basket and look for a little hook shot or a drop step. He can also give you that little eight-foot shot, and I want him to run the floor because he gets down the floor very quickly."
Mutombo's pride is as towering as his 7'2" body, so when he learned that he wasn't in the Nuggets' plans for this season, he and his agent, David Falk, began to evaluate the several NBA teams that had expressed an interest in signing the center. The Lakers flirted with Mutombo, but he knew that was only a backup plan in case they couldn't sign Shaquille O'Neal. The Celtics, the Pistons and the Bucks made pitches, but Mutombo didn't want to play in a cold-weather city.
Finally, on July 15, Falk called Mutombo in Atlanta, where he was lending support to the women's Olympic basketball team from his native Zaire, to tell him that an exciting offer was on the table. "Dikembe," said Falk, "you are in the right city because this is where you are going to play. You are going to be a Hawk." Atlanta was offering a five-year deal worth $56 million, but Mutombo didn't agree to it until he called Steve Smith, the Hawks' shooting guard who at the time was also testing the free-agent market.
Mutombo and Smith had become acquainted when they were college stars in the late 1980s and early '90s—Mutombo at Georgetown, Smith at Michigan State—and Mutombo's belief that they are kindred spirits was only strengthened during his conversation with Smith, when he learned that they had both been married on June 15 and had honeymooned in Maui at the same time. "Steve," Mutombo said, "you tell me they must have a big man in Atlanta for you to stay. I am your big man. Don't leave." And Smith didn't, re-signing with the Hawks a week after his talk with Mutombo.
Mutombo's presence in the middle should help make' the Hawks one of the league's premier defensive teams. In addition, Laettner, the noted shot blocker, will move to his natural position at power forward, where his passing and ball handling should allow Mutombo to get the ball more often in scoring position. This isn't to say, of course, that Mutombo will ever be an offensive force like his fellow Georgetown alums Patrick Ewing of the Knicks and Alonzo Mourning of the Heat. But at least he won't be someone whom defenses can virtually ignore.
"Sometimes," says Mutombo, "you have to leave home and start over. I hope to do that here."