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No Holding Him Back
Leigh Montville
December 09, 1991
With unrestrained play, Nugget rookie Dikembe Mutombo has shown he's no 'project'
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December 09, 1991

No Holding Him Back

With unrestrained play, Nugget rookie Dikembe Mutombo has shown he's no 'project'

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He will get this thing right yet. He will be ready when stardom comes. Yes, he will.

"I am fighting to put my name in front in lights," he says, no fooling now. "I want, in every town, for people to say, 'Mutombo is coming tonight.' To do that, I have to suffer."

The idea, so crazy as recently as—what?—two months ago, has moved from the far back roads of possibility onto the fastest-speed lanes of probability. He can do it. Name in lights. Yes, he can. The guarded predictions from NBA observers and the closed mouths of the first three teams picking in the league draft last June already look silly. The prize of basketball prizes, a big man who scores and rebounds and closes up the middle of the lane tighter than a mortgage officer's heart in a down economy, apparently was available all the time.

The player who wasn't supposed to be able to score is averaging almost 20 points per game. The player who was supposed to take time to develop is locked in a battle with the Atlanta Hawks' Kevin Willis for the league rebounding lead, with almost 15 rebounds a game. The line on the projected performance chart already has gone off the graph paper and is headed up the wall toward the ceiling, where only the most famous basketball names are mentioned. He can do it. The player from Kinshasa, Zaire, who never touched a basketball until he was 18 years old...the player who could not speak English four years ago...the player who...the future suddenly seems almost dizzy.

"I've never seen a player work as hard as he does," says Nugget backup center Scott Hastings. "I've been in the league nine years, and I've only seen three players who practice every day as hard as they play—Bernard King, Sidney Moncrief and Dikembe. You look at the things he's doing—playing 41 minutes every game, practicing on the off-days so hard, then practicing after practice on his own moves. I've never seen this."

The story, high on any quotient of un-believability, seems to zip along on its own bewildering momentum. Boy grows up in Africa, in middle-class family. Boy always is tall, but never plays basketball until his last year of high school. Brother encourages him to play. Boy falls, cuts chin first time on the court. Scar still visible. Boy reads about big-time American basketball in newspapers pasted in windows of U.S. embassy, located near high school. Embassy official, among other people, sees boy play with Zaire's national team. Embassy official tries to find college in U.S. for boy to attend. Boy goes to Georgetown in Washington, D.C. Boy becomes man. Man becomes first-round draft choice. First-round draft choice becomes so much better than anyone expected. Plays up front, next to a man named Cadillac Anderson.

"I do not believe this, that I get here," says Mutombo. "I still do not believe this. I did not think I would be a professional basketball player. Even after my junior year at Georgetown, I did not think this. Then coach John Thompson brought Bill Russell in to talk with me. Bill Russell. Who knows more basketball than Bill Russell? He won 11 NBA championships, had to ask God to give him another finger for 11 rings. Bill Russell told me, 'You can do it.' He was there for five days. He talked to me for three, four hours a day. The man is so smart. He convinced me I could play."

How far has Mutombo come? How fast? He spent his freshman year at Georgetown concentrating on learning English. French is the language of Zaire. Mutombo, whose full name is Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean Jacque Wamutombo, the product of a Jesuit education at home, also knew Portuguese, Italian, Spanish and four African dialects, but he had to spend six hours a day on English lessons. His basketball was in the intramural leagues. He scored 50 points in one game, 35 points in most by just dunking over everyone he saw.

As a sophomore he mostly sat on the Hoya bench behind freshman Alonzo Mourning. In his junior year Mourning moved to forward, and Mutombo-started at center, but he scored only 10.7 points per game. In his senior year he averaged 15.2 points and 12.2 rebounds.

Most pro scouts decided he was a "project," a raw talent who might become a solid player in five years. The Charlotte Hornets, the first team to pick in the draft, passed on him to take forward Larry Johnson of UNLV. The New Jersey Nets selected guard Kenny Anderson of Georgia Tech. The Sacramento Kings chose forward Billy Owens of Syracuse. The Nuggets, at last, took the project with crossed fingers. "I think a lot of teams only had scouted him during games," says Denver general manager Bernie Bicker-staff. "I had seen him practice. He did things in practice that he never did in games. John Thompson said he was going to be a terrific pro."

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