by Lang Whitaker

It was his voice, it was always his voice. Constantly hoarse, deep, expansive, strangulated, like a foghorn crossed with Kermit the Frog.

In the first quarter of tonight’s Portland/Houston game, Rockets backup center Dikembe Mutombo severely injured his left knee and taken off the floor on a stretcher. Considering Dikembe has already announced he would retire after this season, this probably ended his career.

The first year I tried to write about sports for a living was in 1997. (I saw “tried” because I made about $12,000 that year. So I’m not exactly sure I succeeded in making a living, unless living is eating only Ramen.) I managed to get some assignments for the local papers covering the Hawks—this was, gasp, before the internet—and, having nothing better to do other than play Madden against my roommate Matt, and having a press pass, I went to pretty much every Hawks game. Pretty much immediately, I figured out that Dikembe Mutombo was amazing. I hung around his locker all season, marveling at that voice. Somewhere deep in my archives, I have a minicassette with Mutombo singing, “Make ‘Em Say Uhhh.”

The lockout happened in ’98, and when the Hawks returned for training camp, the Falcons were on their way to becoming the Dirty Birds. The Hawks players were all talking about this at the time, and here’s what I wrote for a local sports paper back then…

Hawks center Dikembe Mutombo’s voice has two volumes: loud and extra-loud. When he turns a conversation toward the Falcons, his voice abruptly shifts into extra-loud. Though he claims he was at the airport to welcome the Falcons back from their victory at Minnesota in the NFC Finals, no eyewitnesses at the airport reported seeing the 7’2″ behemoth. When pressed on the issue, the truth comes out. At high volume.

“Yeah, I went to the airport, but there was too much,” Mutombo says, referring to the myriad of fans that turned up. “I had to leave almost before the plane arrived so I could meet them in Buckhead, because there was too many people there.”

“I think the fact that the city hasn’t been a major sports town for so long, people are happy,” Mutombo notes, looking extremely serious. “And all the kids now are wearing the Falcons t-shirts, Super Bowl t-shirts…it’s just a neat time. I think we as a basketball team have to approach it that way and can’t be ashamed to be in the same situation. Don’t let the fans down. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of pressure on us, but we’re going to play with a lot of excitement, make this city happy. Definitely after the Falcons win the Super Bowl.”

The Falcons made the Super Bowl, then got crushed. The Hawks went 31-19 and got swept by the Knicks in the Eastern Conference Semis.

I wrote about my most recent Mutombo interaction in my All-Star Game wrap-up:

Flying out of the All-Star Game city is almost always a hassle, so Ryne and I got up early and got the Phoenix airport at 8:30 a.m. for our 11:20 a.m. flight. Of course, there was nobody in the airport and by about 8:32 a.m. we were through security with nothing to do. After we killed an hour with Hawks VP Arthur Triche at a café, we all headed off to our gates. I dropped my bags and went off to find a bathroom. A few minutes later I was walking back, and I noticed a really tall guy with only a backpack and a PlayStation 3 in a box just ahead of me. He turned and looked at me and I heard a dull roar. I looked up and it was Dikembe Mutombo.

He was on our flight to Houston and stuck in coach, which he wasn’t happy about. I was happy about it, however, because I got to hear Dikembe complain for about 15 minutes. Even better, I got Arthur to come over so I could say, in front of Dikembe, “Hey Triche, you still work for Hawk?”

I think I’ve explained that previous line before, but the quick version is that a bunch of us were at the team hotel at the All-Star Game in Washington D.C. back in 2001. Mutombo had been AWOL for about 24 hours, going to parties and hosting fundraisers and such, when all of a sudden he appeared in the lobby. He walked up to our table, looked over at the aforementioned Arthur Triche, and brayed, “Hey Triche, you still work for Hawk?”

Not Hawks, Hawk. It was hilarious then and it still makes me smile now.

Dikembe Mutombo will be remembered as an amazing humanitarian, a really good basketball player and a forgiving yet expressive dunk contest judge.

But I’ll always remember that voice.

His Rockets teammates nail it…

Plus, Special Bonus Mutombo Video!

(By the way, I am officially calling out NBC and Conan O’Brien, in the name of all that is good and holy, please, please, please release the video of Dikembe’s appearance on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” from about a decade ago. Dikembe Mutombo sucked helium from a balloon and then spoke in a high, squeaky voice on national television and the footage somehow disappeared off the face of the earth. Put it on Hulu.com, whatever. If you have it on tape, email me. The world needs this right now. Come on NBA, call it the Mutombo stimulus package.)

OK, really quick, about the games tonight…

The Cavs destroyed the Pistons tonight, just absolutely demolished them. The final was a deceiving 84-72 — the Cavs had a 29-point lead in the third, pulled all their starters, then had to put them back in at the end when Detroit made a run against their bench players. The Pistons looked defeated out there, like they knew they were overmatched. I knew Joe Dumars traded away their point guard, but I didn’t know he traded away their pride, too. Between them and Michigan State getting drilled in the National Title game, been a rough few weeks in The D. It would be cool if Allen Iverson suddenly showed up for Game 3 and went for like 40.

Deke’s team, the Rockets, did what the Rockets do and melted down in Portland, losing 107-103. Houston, on the road, had the lead, fought with the Blazers, then let Portland take over down the stretch. As it impressive as it was for the young Blazers team to make plays in crunch time on both ends of the court, this was one that Houston should have won. They already stole homecourt in Game One, and they could have really put Portland on the ropes. But now Portland’s right back in there, and I wouldn’t be amazed if the Rockets give back a game in  Houston, either. For a team that’s run by such a smart guy who relies on stats and stuff, the Rockets sure do a lot of dumb things. (Like, Yao Ming took 6 shots tonight. Ron Artest took 20.)

I watched the Lakers run out to big lead on the Jazz, and watched the fourth quarter as the Jazz fought and fought and eventually made it a three-point game before they seemed to run out of gas. I thought the Jazz just looked tougher tonight, at least as tough as a team with baby blue trim on their uniforms can look. And when the game was on the line, the Lakers woke up and forced some turnovers and won going away, 119-109. Kobe threw a late elbow at Paul Milsap, appearing to connect with his armpit. That should make Kobe even more popular when they head to Utah.