Dikembe Mutombo is a giant whose achievements represent a triumph for the little guy.
The signature moment of his career -- and one of the great images in the history of the NBA -- was Mutombo (all 7 feet, 2 inches of him) lying on the court, clutching the basketball over his head and basking in the emotions of his Denver Nuggets becoming the first No. 8 seed to beat a No. 1 seed in the NBA playoffs. The unprecedented became possible, the long odds suddenly seemed surmountable.
We focus so much on the imagery that we forget what he did to earn it. Mutombo averaged slightly more than six blocked shots per game in that upset of the Seattle SuperSonics, setting a record for a five-game series.
"You think about the six blocks," his Nuggets teammate Robert Pack said. "But you think about maybe the other seven that he altered and maybe the five more that he just discouraged guys from coming into the lane."
It's always been hard to quantify an individual's defensive impact; that's why the moment at hand for Mutombo was never a given. This week brings the ultimate validation of his career, and with it, the completed arc of this underdog story. A boy from the Democratic Republic of Congo who had to cut off the front of his shoes when his feet grew too large because getting new sneakers wasn't an option; a youth who didn't begin playing basketball until his late teens; an NBA player with a career scoring average of 11.5 points per game, is entering the Basketball Hall of Fame.
It's a lesson that you don't have to come from the typical places or do things in the conventional manner to be considered one of the all-time greats. When Mutombo entered the league in 1991, Michael Jordan was still at his high-flying zenith, and by the time Mutombo left 18 years later, the league was growing infatuated with the 3-point shot. Mutombo didn't soar for dunks or launch long jumpers. His specialty was defense, the blocked shot in particular. He batted away 3,289 shots in his career second only to Hakeem Olajuwon's 3,830.
"You beat Mutombo, he had that ability to open up and recover and catch and block shots," said Bernie Bickerstaff, who was the Nuggets' president when Denver drafted him. "That's instinct. That's stuff you don't teach. He just had it. He knew how to play that lane. His timing was really, really good. And then he had the respect of his opponents. They were hesitant ... for good reason."
Bickerstaff credited coach John Thompson with helping Mutombo develop into an NBA-caliber player while at Georgetown. But when they spoke at the draft, Thompson told him that he didn't teach Mutombo to sprint from end to end, making the transition from defense to offense or hustling back from offense to defense. That part was innate.
It was the ability to merge so many elements that made Mutombo into a Hall of Fame player and a widely-loved person. Instinct and effort. Education and compassion. Networking and charity.
"He'll ask anybody for anything, [but] he doesn't do it for himself."
Few players have been as generous with their money as Mutombo, whose most notable accomplishment was the hospital named after his mother that he opened in his native Congo.
Masai Ujiri, the Toronto Raptors general manager who has become good friends with Mutombo as they have traveled to promote basketball in Africa and around the world, has a favorite story that demonstrates two more aspects of Mutombo: his resolve and his humor. The Basketball Without Borders contingent was out to dinner during a trip to Brazil. Some members of the group had been to the restaurant the previous night and saw a waiter whose signature gag was walking around with a fake glass of beer and pretending to "spill" it on unsuspecting customers. They thought it would be hilarious to pull the prank on Mutombo. But when the waiter tried it, Mutombo didn't budge, let alone panic.
"He looks at the guy [and says], 'I grew up with snakes behind my house bigger than me, you think I would flinch for this bull----?'" Ujiri recalled.
Even more impressive than the way Mutombo kept his cool is how people react to Mutombo. When Ujiri and Mutombo met Nelson Mandela during a trip to South Africa, Mandela went straight to Mutombo and said, "What you are doing for people on the continent, it's a great thing. Don't ever stop."
When they returned to South Africa this summer for the first NBA-sanctioned game in Africa, Mutombo and Olajuwon surprised the crowd by donning uniforms and taking the court for a few minutes.
"Some guys they're shot blockers, but they don't worry about every shot. He didn't care about that. He wanted to let guys know he was going to be around every time." Former teammate Robert Pack on Mutombo
"Everybody went crazy," Ujiri said. "It shows you the impact of those guys, even today."
It was enough to make Ujiri wish Mutombo and Olajuwon had come along in this era of cell phones, social media and online streaming video.
"They would have really galvanized the game in Africa," Ujiri said. "Almost like Yao Ming [in China] or Dirk [Nowitzki, in Europe]."
But if Mutombo came along today would he still have the same value in today's NBA, a place where big men are expected to spread the floor with 3-point shooting and where there are no Patrick Ewings or Shaquille O'Neals for Mutombo to guard? Mutombo played in an era when there was a higher premium placed on protecting the basket, an assignment he took so seriously he hated being deprived of the chance to do it.
"He would get pissed when you would foul a guy on the way up," Pack said. "Nooo, nooo Robert. I got him.
"He didn't want us to foul, because he was coming. Some guys they're shot blockers, but they don't worry about every shot. He didn't care about that. He wanted to let guys know he was going to be around every time."
That's the mentality that helped Mutombo win four Defensive Player of the Year awards. Twenty different players have won that honor since it was instituted in 1983. Only three besides Mutombo have reached the Hall of Fame without also winning a Most Valuable Player award: Alonzo Mourning, Dennis Rodman and Gary Payton.
That brings us right back to the paradox that is Dikembe Mutombo: a statistical longshot and an elite among the elite.