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Only in hindsight can it be seen as a victory lap, beginning in Los Angeles and circling back there four months and thousands of miles later. On Feb. 22, the day of the NBA trading deadline, Dikembe Mutombo was awakened in his L.A. hotel room at 6 a.m. by a call from his agent, David Falk. All season long, potential deals for Mutombo had been rumored, and now Falk was phoning to tell him that the Atlanta Hawks were indeed trading him, to the Philadelphia 76ers. "I'd thought I would go to New York or Phoenix," Mutombo says.
Instead, he will be returning triumphantly to Los Angeles with his new team this week, a trip made possible by his brilliant play in the Eastern Conference finals. In their 108-91 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 7 on Sunday, the Sixers went to Mutombo again and again in the fourth quarter, as if he were a fullback chewing up yards to run the clock and protect a lead. Serving as Mr. Inside to Allen Iverson's Mr. Outside, he scored a game-high 10 points in the quarter and finished with 23 points, 19 rebounds and seven blocked shots. Odds are Mutombo's run will end against the Lakers in the Finals, but the Sixers showed against the Bucks that they now have a one-two punch that may be capable of trading shots with Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.
Despite Philadelphia's ascension, the last four months have not been a complete joyride for Mutombo. The 76ers had the best record in the league when they traded for him, which meant, as Mutombo quickly realized, that he would be the one to blame if they failed to play into mid-June. To acquire their new 7'2" center, the Sixers gave up forward Toni Kukoc and 27-year-old All-Star center Theo Ratliff, who was sidelined with a broken right wrist on Feb. 8 and whose status for the postseason was in doubt. The 76ers' fans loved Ratliff, injured or not, and they had their doubts about Mutombo, 34, who in nine years had never taken a team beyond the second round of the playoffs.
In all that time Mutombo had imagined how much he would enjoy playing for the championship. Living that dream proved to be harrowing. After he moved to Philly, an elderly neighbor in his apartment complex would tell him whenever their paths crossed that the 76ers should nullify the trade if they didn't reach the Finals. "That pressure was what pushed me," Mutombo says in his basso profundo voice with a Congolese accent. "A lot of people questioned my ability to play with this team: Do I have enough left to help accomplish its goals? They didn't look at the fact that I was always a great player but wasn't surrounded by players who wanted to win the way these guys do."
On Mutombo's first day of practice with the 76ers, swingman Aaron McKie broke the ice with a parody of the big man's voice. Mutombo responded with a self-deprecating laugh, proceeding with caution, not wanting to foul up the team's winning formula. "We knew the kind of person and player he was, so it wasn't hard for us to adapt to him," power forward Tyrone Hill says. "It was harder for him to adapt to us. We're so tight, so close-knit; you bring somebody new into a family, and he has to feel the family out."
Is the team better than it would have been with Ratliff? "You can't say that," says Hill, a close friend of Ratliff's. "We could be doing the same things with Theo. But Dikembe stepped in for Theo, and we haven't missed a beat."
When Lenny Wilkens, coach of the Hawks at the time, said last season that Mutombo was not a leader, he was complaining that the center wasn't telling wayward teammates how to behave. That's because Mutombo is the ultimate complementary player, always looking to fit in. No sooner did he arrive in Philadelphia than he began working on his offensive moves after every practice, trying to improve his footwork and balance to fill the Sixers' needs in the low post. Mutombo scored 9.1 points per game with Atlanta in the first half of the season, but over the first three rounds of the playoffs he averaged 13.1, including 16.6 against the Bucks. In the fourth quarter on Sunday he made a spin move to the baseline that had his coaches roaring. "A 10-year veteran like him could have come here and said he wasn't going to do the extra work," says assistant Randy Ayers. "He has excellent touch—he's a great free throw shooter [79.5% in the playoffs]. We think he can be a big threat down low, and we're going to throw it in there to him against Shaq."
What of midseason predictions that he and Iverson wouldn't mesh offensively? Iverson scored 44 points in Game 7 and has averaged 32.1 during the postseason, which makes a mockery of those dire forecasts. The concern was that Mutombo would clog the middle, cutting off Iverson's lanes to the basket. "We have good chemistry," Mutombo says. "I know the only person who can block Allen's shot is my man, so when I see Allen coming, I get out of the way and try to bring my man with me. Then, if Allen misses, I get the rebound or tip it back in. That is how I am getting a lot of my offensive rebounds, a lot of my scoring, by working with Allen in this way."
Despite his close friendship with Ratliff, Iverson gave his blessing to the Mutombo trade on the assumption that it would improve the team. "Everyone thinks we got Dikembe to beat the Lakers and Shaq, but the truth is we wanted to have a true center and someone who can lead the league in rebounds," says general manager Billy King, who has all but promised to re-sign Mutombo as a free agent this summer.
After averaging a league-high 13.5 boards and finishing fifth with 2.71 blocks, Mutombo was named Defensive Player of the Year for an NBA record fourth time. He also received the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award. Mutombo is working to build a 300-bed hospital in his hometown of Kinshasa, Congo, and has donated $3 million to the $44 million project. His image would seem to be the polar opposite of Iverson's, but Mutombo expresses nothing but respect for Iverson's courage. As Iverson rallied for 26 points in the fourth quarter of a failed comeback in Game 6 at Milwaukee, it was easy to forget that the 6-foot, 160-pound guard had missed Game 3 with a bruised tailbone only six days earlier—an injury that has yet to heal. "To see how much of a beating Allen gets night after night," Mutombo says, "I wonder if he takes a lot of painkillers when he gets home."