Finally, Dikembe Mutombo speaks the language. Not French or English, or even Portugese, Spanish or any of the five African tribal dialects he knows -- all of those came relatively easily. The language of basketball, that was a struggle, one that took even this bright and delightfully engaging former doctor-to-be from Zaire the better part of his four years here (and countless, often less-than-pleasant tutorials from Georgetown Coach John Thompson) to conquer.
Now, however, Mutombo can talk the game almost as well as he plays it. And not just the basic jargon, like “pick-and-roll” or “defensive rotation.” He recites blocked-shot records from memory, for he’s certain they all will be his soon. And, most important, the words “lottery pick” roll gracefully off his tongue, almost as if he had been practicing them from the first time he picked up a basketball nearly seven years ago.
The refrain is familiar by now: After virtually every Hoyas game, their senior center will sit by his locker and tell whomever happens to ask that he must concentrate on his rebounding and defense, for that is what will make him a lottery pick in the next NBA draft. And Mutombo is not alone in that assessment.
“Dikembe is going to be a great pro,” Thompson said recently, and most NBA scouts and general managers seem to agree. “I like to sit back and listen to how people say how great some of these kids are now, because in a few years Dikembe’s going to surpass them all. In terms of his playing career, he’s on an upward curve.
“Basketball-wise, he’s still just a babe in the woods. But he hustles all the time and he has what you can’t teach, and that’s heart. He hasn’t been brought up being given things and being told how great he is, and he wants to get better. And he will get better -- much, much better.”
This is heady stuff for a one-time soccer goalie who took up basketball only because his brother and father forced him to do so, a formerly gangly youngster who fell flat on his face -- literally, gashing open his chin -- during his first practice session and detested the game for his first month of playing it.
“If you had asked me then, I never would have thought he would be any good at basketball,” said Mutombo’s older brother Ilo, who plays for Division II Southern Indiana. “I would have had a good laugh. Now I am so proud of him I can’t even express it.”
Indeed, it is a curious tale, and it has produced the most unforeseeable of reactions. Wilt Chamberlain once observed that “nobody roots for Goliath,” yet no one seems to pull too vehemently against Dikembe Mutombo. He’s as endearing as he is awe-inspiring, more likely to react with a pained look to a low-post elbow planted in his chest than with any sort of retaliation.
“He’s impossible not to like,” said Alonzo Mourning, Mutombo’s heralded teammate who may be the best testament to Mutombo’s potential greatness: How many players can force someone the caliber of Mourning to switch positions?
The Mutombo story began in Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire and a sprawling city of 2.5 million people. Dikembe Mutombo is a shortened version of his name, adopted to accommodate Americans (and the back of his jersey); actually, he is Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean Jacque Wamutombo. He is properly addressed as Mutombo, which is what relatives call him. For his American friends, it’s now simply Deke.
His family was middle class, with his parents and his eight siblings (six brothers and two sisters) sharing a large, six-bedroom house in downtown Kinshasa. His father, now retired, was an educator, working first as a principal and later in Zaire’s equivalent of the education department. His children were given no choice but to do well in school. “Of course we got good grades,” Ilo said. “Our father was a principal.”
Dikembe, however, was particularly studious. As far back as he now can remember, he dreamed of being a doctor. “I wanted it very badly,” he said, and it was an ambition he maintained until he arrived at Georgetown and was told he wouldn’t have enough time for both basketball and medical school. “I was very disappointed,” he said. “I thought I could do both, but they told me it was impossible. ... Maybe I can still be a doctor one day, after basketball.”
He switched high schools, laying the groundwork for his medical career by going to the Institute Boboto, where the science and math classes were more challenging. At about the same time, Ilo and his father decided that Dikembe, 16, had to take up basketball.
The entire family was tall -- 6-foot-9 Ilo says his father is 6-4, his mother 6-2 or 6-3 -- but it was clear Dikembe was going to be the tallest. (He’s now listed at 7-2, and he has admitted to being 7-3; but a number of opponents and several pro scouts insist he is at least 7-4). And his soccer skills and a previous interest in the martial arts demonstrated his coordination.
Ilo had begun playing basketball at a local playground, where the participants were nicknamed “Dr. J” and “Kareem” after their favorite overseas stars. Among the court’s regulars, only Ilo did not have a famous monicker. “I was just Ilo,” he said. Yet he looked at his quickly growing brother, and he saw the next Akeem Olajuwon, the native of Nigeria who was by then adorning magazine covers in Zaire.
So Ilo took Dikembe to the nearby court -- and, during a jumping drill, the younger Mutombo promptly tumbled over forward and was left bleeding badly from his chin. To hear Dikembe tell that story today is to deal with the French accent with which he delivers his near-perfect English: “I broke my shin,” he’ll say, leading more than one observer to inquire how long it took to recover from such a severe leg injury.
The accent and the voice -- which rumbles at an octave that seems as low as any human possibly can produce -- are just part of the wealth of idiosyncracies that lead Thompson to call Mutombo his “filling station,” the type of player who keeps a coach invigorated amid an often-dreary repetition of headaches. “He has come out of a different way of living, a different system of life,” Thompson said. “It’s easier to communicate and to deal with him without him being fragile.
“He has a refreshing freshness about him ... because he has not been Americanized since he was in elementary school, with somebody recruiting him or somebody trying to convince him that he’s the best thing that’s happened to the game since the tennis shoe was invented.”
Mutombo lore is plentiful. There was the time he nearly caused Thompson to fall off his chair in laughter when, at a news conference the day before an NCAA tournament game, he answered a reporter’s question in French, then queried: “What, you don’t understand?”
He causes double-takes with his tendency to exaggerate backwards -- How far did you run today, Dikembe? “Oh, five, three, two miles” -- and his promise to would-be givers of rides that he can fit into any car, no matter how compact. There was the time he took such a liking to then-teammate Charles Smith’s Australian-style cowboy hat that Thompson went out and bought one of his own; last year, Thompson said he motivated Mutombo by taping to his locker a one-way airplane ticket to Zaire.
Mutombo says he’s playing this season for “a ring,” presumably one of the NCAA championship variety. If he has the sound of a mercenary when he speaks of the NBA glory that’s in store, his deep-rooted loyalty comes to the forefront when the subject is Thompson or the unfinished business of his Hoyas’ career.
“Coach Thompson is like my father,” he said. “Your father tells you what you should be doing. ... When (Thompson) comes out on the basketball court for practice, he doesn’t just come out and say, ‘Son, what we’re going to do in basketball is learn this play.’
“When Coach Thompson comes to practice, the first thing he talks about is what’s going on around the world and ‘Do you guys know what’s happening around the United States, how people are treating each other?’
“I want to get a ring, for him and for me.”
Still, if it had been up to Mutombo, he probably never would have been back on a basketball court for a second time. Only Ilo would not let him abandon the game, and Dikembe and Ilo became constant off-court companions after they started playing together on club teams. They’d go to local band concerts, and they’d spend afternoons after school at the American and French embassies in Kinshasa -- where they could see movies, not to mention videotapes of NBA games, for free.
Their goal initially was not to play basketball in the United States. Ilo wanted them to try to play for a professional team in Europe. The entire situation changed rapidly, though, as the long recruiting arm of American colleges reached all the way to Zaire. Dikembe and Ilo (placed at Southern Indiana with the help of an Indiana State assistant coach who tried belatedly to recruit Dikembe) left for the United States in 1987.
They knew then that they probably would not return home for the next four years, and they haven’t. They telephone home as often as possible, with Dikembe usually talking to their father and Ilo to their mother. They also call one another -- Dikembe phones collect after many Georgetown games, Ilo said -- but they hadn’t seen each other in person until the Hoyas played the Screaming Eagles last month at Capital Centre here.
The isolation was particularly tormenting when their older brother Kanyinda, a successful architect, died of a brain tumor during the Mutombos’ first year away from home. (He was the second brother to die.) Yet Dikembe and Ilo persevered, never thinking to turn back; their father wouldn’t have allowed it. “We could not come home, with the opportunity for education we had,” Ilo said. Now there are plans for their father to attend their graduation ceremonies this spring, although Ilo says it’s not yet a certainty.
Since Dikembe did not take the Scholastic Aptitude Test -- it’s not offered in French -- he was not eligible to play during his first year at Georgetown. (School officials say they’ve had notions at times of applying for a special dispensation allowing him a fourth year of eligibility, but they’ve never followed through.) He spent that first year finally letting go of his medical-school plans and working on his English.
The Mutombo nightmare for rival Big East coaches started as just an ugly rumor. During his first year at the school, he played in an intramural league, and several publications subsequently listed him as a 5-10 point guard. The summer before his first season of competition, he averaged 23 points, 11 rebounds and 7 blocked shots per game as the rawest of forces in the Kenner League.
He was a novelty most of his first two seasons, playing in short bursts and making 71 percent of his field-goal shots because few of his shots came more than six inches from the rim. But a dinner-table suggestion from Red Auerbach prompted Thompson to begin playing Mourning and Mutombo together regularly last season, and -- save for Mourning’s 6-week-old arch injury this year -- the twin towers concept has been alive for the Hoyas ever since.
Yet despite his late-season push as a junior, Mutombo entered this season averaging 7.2 points and 6.8 rebounds a game in 18.3 minutes. Two straight summers of working out with Patrick Ewing -- in between serving as a Capitol Hill intern two summers ago, then as a computer and translations specialist at the World Bank last year -- had improved his skills, but no one was about to mistake him for Olajuwon yet.
The upward curve of Mutombo’s development has steepened this year, as much because Mourning’s injury has forced him to improve offensively as anything else. His low-post attacks still are fairly rudimentary, but the advances are clear. His hook shots with either hand remain crude replicas of those of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the tapes Thompson has given Mutombo, but they seem to grow ever softer. His passing is immensely better than a year ago, and Thompson’s urgings that he learn to go around defenders as well as over them are garnering some results.
He’s averaging 16.4 points, 12.3 rebounds and 5.7 blocks, and he remains as disruptive a force as ever defensively. He has blocked shots with his hands, his elbow, even his armpit; he blocks many without even jumping. “He’s already eliminated the layup; now I think he’s trying for the jump shot,” said St. John’s Coach Lou Carnesecca, against whose team Mutombo blocked a Big East-record 12 shots two years ago.
Former Providence center Marty Conlon used to marvel while telling a story about what he called the “limbo dunk” Mutombo once performed against him after starting from beneath the rim. “You hate to see the game come so easily to someone,” Syracuse center LeRon Ellis said, " ... because it certainly doesn’t come easy to the rest of us.”
Mutombo is virtually assured of being one of the top seven selections in next summer’s draft, even if underclassmen like Shaquille O’Neal, Billy Owens, Kenny Anderson and Mourning go to the NBA early and make this year’s talent pool among the best in recent memory. “He’s a lottery pick, no doubt,” said Los Angeles Lakers General Manager Jerry West, who has seen the Hoyas play several times this season.
“There just aren’t many big men around who can run and move like he can. The possibilities with him are just so endless. He’s a guy that has the potential to dominate the pro game even if his offensive skills are just passable.”
The greatest of ironies is that, if Mourning does opt to skip his senior season, Mutombo -- once the rawest of projects -- might be picked ahead of his ever-so-polished teammate. “When I came to the United States, I didn’t think for one moment about the NBA,” Mutombo said. “Now it’s my goal. It’s easy to talk about it being my dream because I’m 7-3. But I don’t want to become just another player who goes to the NBA as a project. I want to go there and play.”