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."
The two coexist in a yin-yang sort of way: Iverson takes an
enormous amount of punishment, and Mutombo (apart from the broken
left pinkie he suffered in the second round against the Toronto
Raptors) dispenses an enormous amount with his notoriously sharp
elbows. "I wear my mouthpiece in practice and not in games, so
that should tell you something," says backup center Todd
MacCulloch. "I call it my Deke-piece. When he elbows you in the
face, it's always accidental. It's just that he's relentless. He
goes for everything in practice like it's a game."
The Iverson-Mutombo relationship was facilitated by the common
bond of John Thompson, their former coach at Georgetown. After
Mutombo blocked a potential game-winning tip-in by Milwaukee
guard Ray Allen in the final second to clinch Game 5 in
Philadelphia, he took great pride in seeing Thompson and fellow
Hoyas Patrick Ewing and Alonzo Mourning in the locker room,
showing their support. For years Mutombo was the one cheering on
his more famous Georgetown brothers. Now his size 22 sneakers
(the same size as O'Neal's, by the way) are leading the way.
The 76ers know they must help Mutombo guard Shaq, who has become
more aggressive than ever since gaining confidence in his free
throws. At the same time, there is reason to hope. In Atlanta
they still talk about the game Mutombo had against O'Neal last
season, limiting him to nine points in a 99-85 Hawks loss.
(Because of the trade, Mutombo didn't play against O'Neal with
either of his teams this season.) His skill--and his reputation--as
a defender should at least help keep him out of foul trouble
against Shaq. In 816 career games Mutombo has fouled out only 26
times, and through this postseason he has averaged a mere 1.8
Even if things go badly in the Finals, Mutombo will remember this
as the season he turned his career right-side up. "It has been a
rookie experience for me," he says. On Sunday morning, at the
shootaround before Game 7, the smallest 76er and the tallest--the
former covered with tattoos, the latter having vowed never to get
one--shared a moment in the locker room. "This is going to be
special for both of us," team captain Iverson told Mutombo with
an air of confidence. "It took me five years to get here; it's
taken you 10 years. I'm glad we're going to be doing it
Mutombo played with the stoicism of a man who'd seen it all, but
in the last minute of victory, his young heart prevailed. He
became an old-fashioned showboat, motioning to lift the crowd to
louder heights. At midcourt he dribbled out the clock, slamming
down the ball at the buzzer, which set off an explosion of
fireworks and a soft, bright storm of confetti in all the colors
of the rainbow. When the silver Eastern Conference championship
trophy was presented to the 76ers, he was the first one to reach
out and kiss it. "I have only had my picture taken with the
Defensive Player of the Year awards," Mutombo said.
At long last, he was taking the offensive.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JOHN BIEVER
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Backbreaker Despite his bruised tailbone, the acrobatic Iverson dazzled Allen and Milwaukee.
COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN Key asset Mutombo averaged 2.71 blocks against the Bucks, along with 15.6 rebounds.
Iverson and Mutombo have made a mockery of midseason predictions
that they wouldn't mesh offensively.