Throwback Thursday: Dikembe Mutombo

Welcome back to our Throwback Thursday blog. Each week, we spotlight one of our favorite throwback superstars. We choose these stars using a rigorous scientific process we know in-house as “Whoever Nick Feels Like Writing About This Week Unless We Wanted To Do A Finger-Wagging Insta Post.” This week’s Throwback Thursday is pick is one the league’s greatest rim protectors—and one of its greatest philanthropists—Dikembe Mutombo.

“Man does not fly in the House of Mutombo.”

So sayeth Dikembe, and so it was. Over a dominant eighteen year career, Dikembe Mutombo would send back the second most shots* in NBA history, following many of them with his signature finger wag and a booming declaration of either “Not in my house!” or “No, no, no.”

*Behind Hakeem Olajuwon, although sticklers will point out that it’s likely Kareem, Russell, and possibly a few others who played some/all of their careers before blocked shots were tallied may have recorded more.

And when I say booming, I mean booming, There’s probably never been a greater voice in basketball’s that Dikembe’s, a lyrical deep bass thunderclap, accented by his Congolese accent. Like Dikembe himself, that voice is so much larger than life it seems like something contrived for the benevolent deity of an African fable. He sounds like Mufasa’s Mufasa.

He’s used that mighty voice of his for much more than on-court trash talk; Mutombo is one of basketball’s most active and outspoken public servants. He spearheaded—and contributed $15,000,000 to—the construction of a hospital (named after his mother Biamba Marie) in his native Congo in 2007—a hospital that is still operational, and financially stable, ten years later. Of Dikembe’s many philanthropic ventures, that one stands out as one of his most personal—before he was a basketball player, Mutombo dreamed of becoming a surgeon so that he might help save the lives of his countrymen. 

That’s just the tip of his philanthropic iceberg—he’s also worked extensively with NBA Cares, hosts a basketball camp to give young African boys a chance to earn scholarships and other routes to success, and recently adopted one of those boys himself. But as great as Dikembe’s good works are, they’re not why Denver fans remember him.

No, they remember him leading the league in blocks three years in a row. They remember him being named the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year for 1995*. They remember his bellowing No No Nos and his signature finger-wag. They remember his exuberant love of the game and his emphatic rejections of everybody from Michael Jordan to Shawn Kemp.

*The first of Dikembe’s record four DPOYs.

Speaking of Shawn Kemp, the biggest thing Nuggets fans remember Dikembe for was doing the impossible. In 1994, rookie Mutombo led his upstart eight seeded Nuggets to a playoff upset over the NBA’s presumptive best team in Kemp’s Sonics. Dikembe put on one of the greatest rim protection performances of all time against the Sonics elite offense (2nd in the league that season), averaging 6.2 blocks per game in the five game series.

The normally stalwart Sonics simply weren’t prepared for life in the House of Mutombo, as only one rotation player (the perimeter focused, and therefore relatively Dikembe-proof Detleft Schrempf) managed to shoot over .500 for the series. The team as a whole were held below 42% shooting, and superstar leading scorer Shawn Kemp managed only 14.8 points per game on 37% shooting against Mutombo’s suffocating interior defense.

Mutombo seemed to be everywhere in that series, a 7’2 shot-blocking sasquatch with spider-sense. No matter who shot, or from where, Dikembe was there to make them think twice… or to send their shot right back in their face, followed quickly by a finger wag. The series ended on one of the great Denver sports images of all time, with Dikembe lying on the court, holding the ball over his head, grinning and sobbing with the pure, ecstatic joy of victory.

It remains one of the enduring moments of Nuggets history, and it’s perhaps a fitting summation of Dikembe’s career: incredible defense, and incredible joy. No man shall fly in the House of Mutombo, no… but a heart might.

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