The Nuggets, an abominable 20-62 team a year ago, lost in the frenzy of coach
Paul Westhead's doors-open offense, needed restructuring. Westhead decided to restructure around Mutombo. What else was there to do? He redesigned both the offense and defense around a mobile big man. He put in an offense that would take advantage of a young Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, a defense that would take advantage of a young, shot-blocking Russell. Was it the move of a desperate man? Westhead had never seen Mutombo play in person. That was how desperate.
"He finally came in for five days in July," says Westhead. "It was just me, him and a basketball. It was like, 'O.K., I'm the director. I've already signed you as the lead for my next five movies. Nice to meet you. Now, let me see if you can talk.' I had a list of about 18 drills for him to do, things for him to take home so he would be ready for training camp. We went through the list, and he did this and he did that. Right away I could see that the guy could do a lot more things than people thought he could. And he could learn. Tell him something once and he would learn it. He was fundamentally sound."
One surprise has followed another. A full-extension hook shot—"Bill Russell told me to develop one shot, my shot, a killing weapon," Mutombo says, "and I picked this one"—has been a threat. Memories of Abdul-Jabbar. An eagerness to rebound, hands reaching for every loose basketball, has been a constant. Memories of Russell. A tiny turnaround jumper has begun to appear. A drop step and a dunk have been added. The young Nuggets have not exactly soared to the front of the standings, but they have been an interesting operation night after night.
Mutombo, who signed a five-year, $13.7 million contract on the trunk of a car a few minutes before the opening of training camp, has been a joy to Denver. He has announced that he won't go skiing because, he says, "I saw Barbara Bush break her leg skiing." He has told tales of Zaire, recalling the visit of Muhammad Ali for the big fight against George Foreman in 1974. His impression of Thompson—"Sonnnnnn, don't get caught up"—has become a locker room motto. Don't get caught up in what? "Anything," says Mutombo. He has worn his Nugget baseball cap backward, looking like a giant rapper or boy from the 'hood. The 'hood in Zaire? He has talked trash with anyone. Everyone.
"I met Michael Jordan this summer at a Comic Relief banquet in New York," says Mutombo. "I told him, 'Michael, you will not dunk on me. Don't even try.' We played an exhibition in New Orleans. I told him again. He did not dunk. Then we played him here last week. I told him. He did not dunk. With five seconds left, he was fouled. I told him at the line, 'Michael, you did not dunk on me.' He said, 'Mutombo, this is for you.' He closed his eyes. He made the foul shot."
The results thus far, as Westhead is quick to point out, are only the early returns. Teams will try more and more gimmick defenses against Mutombo—double-teaming him, triple-teaming, working his 245-pound body. The season is long. Injuries happen. A million things can happen. The important part of the early returns, though, is that they are good returns. Great returns. Not only can the big man play, but he wants to learn as well. The returns could get much better.
"He is so open to everything, so new to everything," says Westhead. "That is the beauty of him. We were playing one night, and Dikembe went down on the floor pretty hard. There was no call. I stood up, and the referee was near me. I started hollering for a foul. The referee turned and said to me, 'Good fake.' He thought Dikembe had tried to fake a foul. I yelled. Take? Don't you understand? This guy doesn't know what a fake is.' The idea of him faking was outrageous. Fake? There is no fake inside this man. Do you know what I mean? He is the real thing."
"When I signed my contract, my father was so happy he had a party for three days," Mutombo says. "This is something that never has happened in my family before, someone making a lot of money, someone who could help the family. I already have been able to send money to my uncles, to my brothers, to my sisters. And if something happens—someone is there to help. I hear people say, 'You must be proud of yourself,' but that is not the way I feel. I think that you don't feel proud of what you are doing; you feel proud about what people say you are doing."
He is going to a photo shoot. That is a part of his developing life. He has signed with a Los Angeles company, DIC Enterprises, which is marketing his name. He already has made a record called Dikembe Block. He has done some of the talk shows. DIC has put out a brochure detailing the languages he speaks. This photo shoot is at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts. He is walking his slow walk down 14th Street, carrying the clothes he needs for the shoot.