By all accounts, Hawks center Dikembe Mutombo is one of the NBA's most charitable souls. Almost every summer Mutombo returns to the Congo, where he was born, to conduct youth basketball clinics and give motivational speeches. He has even donated $1 million to help build a hospital in his hometown of Kinshasa.
But with elbows held high in the low block, the 7'2" Mutombo is no benefactor of opposing centers. Already this season his stray joints have broken the noses of the Cavaliers' Vitaly Potapenko and the Nets' Jayson Williams, and left others, such as the Sixers' Matt Geiger, with swollen eyes and sore gums. Mutombo says all of these incidents were accidental, but some players say this Hawk with the wide wingspan is reckless—if not an outright dirty bird. "He hit me in the mouth twice," Williams says. "How much is a man supposed to take? [ NBA deputy commissioner] Russ Granik better do something about this unless you want Jerry Springer out there." Adds Rockets center Hakeem Olajuwon, "I think he's a dangerous player."
Olajuwon knows all about the dangers of flying elbows. He missed 25 games in '91 with a fracture of the right orbit after he caught an elbow from Bulls center Bill Cartwright, another player famous for loosening molars. Now Olajuwon says he warns opposing players like Mutombo not to get careless. "I tell them that I will retaliate," Olajuwon says.
Mutombo isn't the only player whose elbows could be classified as lethal weapons. Jazz forward Karl Malone, Heat center Alonzo Mourning and Raptors forward Kevin Willis also have been known to do some damage. Mutombo himself suffered a broken nose Feb. 14 when he was hit by Philadelphia forward Theo Ratliff.
League vice president Rod Thorn was concerned enough that he spoke with Hawks officials on Feb. 7. He didn't request that Mutombo wear elbow pads—something the NBA has never required a player to do—but he urged him to be more careful. "They want me to play six feet tall," Mutombo says. "If I have to keep my arms down that's what I am, a six-foot guy. I can't play like that."
Some opponents agree with Mutombo, pointing out that with his angular build and awkward movements there's not much he can do to avoid playing a little chin music. "He's pretty clean," Lakers center Shaquille O'Neal says. "He's just long."
Mutombo's elbows haven't caused any problems lately, but that doesn't mean all is forgiven. On Feb. 23, just nine days after Mutombo had his nose broken by Ratliff, Hawks forward Tyrone Corbin suffered a similar injury when he was tagged by Mavericks center Chris Anstey. "I guess we're getting payback for the two Dikembe got earlier," Corbin joked.
If Mutombo won't watch his elbows for their sake, Hawks opponents say, maybe he'll do it for his teammates. After all, charity does begin at home.