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HAWKS COACH Lon Kruger arrived at practice on Jan. 16 to find his starting center, Dikembe Mutombo, looking glum. "I am not good," Mutombo said. "My president has been shot."
That day Laurent-Désiré Kabila, who since 1997 had assumed dictatorial powers over Congo, reportedly had been murdered by his bodyguard. Mutombo endured sleepless nights last week, phoning his native country for assurances that the streets were quiet and that his family—including a brother who lives a few blocks from the presidential palace in Kinshasa—was safe. "It's a very sad day for me," Mutombo said last Friday, near tears as he discussed the assassination. "It's sad the way we are now in Africa, the way people are dying."
Mutombo has his size-22 feet planted in two enormously different worlds—one in Congo, where he is trying to build a desperately needed 300-bed hospital, at a cost of $44 million; the other in the NBA, where he is expected to command a five-year contract worth more than $75 million next season. As one of the marquee free agents this summer (along with the Kings' Chris Webber and the Mavericks' Michael Finley), the 7'2" Mutombo has been the subject of trade rumors for the last year. The Hawks have discussed dealing him to a half dozen suitors, including the Knicks—who have not formally offered Latrell Sprewell, Allan Houston or Marcus Camby in return, reports to that effect notwithstanding.
Barring a move by the Feb. 15 trade deadline, Mutombo will spend the rest of the season in Atlanta. "Ideally, we would like Dikembe to finish his career with us," says Hawks G.M. Pete Babcock. Mutombo, 34, who is building a home in suburban Atlanta, could demand a sign-and-trade deal. He remains disappointed in the Hawks' management, which in the summer of 1999 dismantled a team that had gone 137-77 in the three years after Mutombo signed as a free agent. The key trade was Steve Smith and Ed Gray to the Trail Blazers for Jim Jackson and Isaiah Rider. Despite that move and others, Mutombo says with a laugh, "I love the city."
At week's end Atlanta had gone 42-79 since the Smith trade, but team president Stan Kasten believes the Hawks' fortunes are changing. After a 1-10 start this season—attributable in large part to Mutombo's missing the first five games with malaria and his sub-par performance as he recovered—the young Hawks had gone 13-15 through Sunday. That they stood only 4½ games out of the final playoff spot in the East was due mainly to Mutombo. Like the last survivor of a royal family, he is the only dominating seven-footer in the conference. Despite career lows in points per game (8.3) and shooting (44.2%) through Sunday, he was averaging an NBA-leading 13.9 rebounds and blocking 2.32 shots to earn his $14.4 million salary.
The hardest thing for young players to learn is team defense, but Mutombo's regal presence is helping erase a lot of mistakes and keeping the Hawks in games. The recent emergence of Lorenzen Wright as the starting power forward can be attributed to his partnership with the big man. "I've seen that relationship progressing," says promising second-year guard Jason Terry. "We've got a lot of room for error because we know he's sitting back there."
Mutombo will never be the focal point of Atlanta's attack, but he has avoided serious injury and runs the floor well for his age—whatever it is. "[Assistant coach] Rick Mahorn is always joking that Deke is 42, that no one's ever seen his birth certificate," Wright says. "I always figured he was 31 or something."
Mutombo appears to enjoy his leadership role and Kruger's enthusiastic, high-energy practices. "The progress we have made lately has been very positive," Mutombo says. "I am going to make my decision after I see how much progress has been made and how we finish."
The money will matter too. Mutombo intends to add to the $3 million he has invested in the planned hospital in Kinshasa. "I want to accomplish something bigger than me," he says. He is also seeking donations—his fellow Georgetown alum Patrick Ewing pledged $100,000 last month—but does not want to rely too much on corporate support After the hospital has been running a couple of years, he wants to be free to turn control over to a church or other nonprofit organization.