Dikembe Mutombo on His Rookie Year and the 2001 All-Star Game

When Dikembe Mutombo walks into a room, he patiently looks arounds and smiles. The 7-2, 51-year-old is still full of exuberance. He’s polite, he introduces himself (as if Mt. Mutombo needs an introduction) and he’s always down to pose for a picture and talk some hoops with anyone who asks. He slowly, carefully chooses his words and most of the time, there’s either a sarcastic or comedic twist to what he says. He told us he wants to dunk on anybody, for example. And yes, he says, he can still throw it down on a regulation hoop.

Mutombo was in New York this week with NASCAR driver Kevin Harvick. Outside of Madison Square Garden, Harvick, more than a foot shorter than Deke, tried his best to score on the eight-time All-Star. It definitely didn’t work.

Mutombo and Harvick were talking about “The Drive,” a pop-up basketball event for fans to have fun, win prizes and learn more about the newest Mobil 1 Annual Protection. “You don’t worry about your engine, you don’t worry about going back to the shop,” Mutombo said before locking up on Harvick. “It’s the best you can have in your car.”

We sat down with Mutombo for a brief conversation about his playing days.

SLAM: We have a whole new crop of rookies coming in. What do you remember about your first year in the League?

Dikembe Mutombo: When I was a rookie, I was abused a little bit. All the veterans made me bring them breakfast in the morning. They made me buy them a newspaper. They made me carry their bags. I think it was a lot. I travel with NBA teams today—I don’t see many guys getting beat up like I got beat up. Scott Hastings, Reggie Williams, Jerome Lane—all those guys were five and seven years in the League when I came in. [They would say] ‘Big fella, carry my bag! Big fella, we have five guys leave their bags behind, carry ‘em!’ But it was fun. It’s the price you pay as a young player.

SLAM: That doesn’t really happen as much, right? They have the Rookie Transition Program to teach the kids about the League.

DM: I didn’t go this year but I’ve been going for the last five years speaking to the kids. [I tell them to] Stay humble, be hungry, follow your dream, work hard and don’t just listen to what your friends are saying. Listen to what your coaches and your teammates are saying. Those are the people who want you to succeed and the people who want you to do well. It’s very important to set goals. Ask yourself how long do you want to play in the NBA? What do you want to accomplish? How do you want to be remembered when you stop playing?

SLAM: How did you want to be remembered? 

DM: I want to be remembered as one of the best shot-blockers to ever play the game. I told people that from the day I got drafted by the Denver Nuggets and they gave me the hat. I said my goal is to go to this League and dominate. Go on to become the best defender, rebounder and shotblocker and make a couple All-Star Games. You don’t meet too many rookies who would speak that language.

SLAM: You’re right. Most rookies want to come in and get buckets. Where did that mentality come from?

DM: [Former Georgetown coach] John Thompson. Coach John Thompson taught us about the toughness. Nothing is going to come easy to you, you’ve got to go get it. When I came to the League, I told them what I want to go get. They didn’t give it to me so I just went and took it.

SLAM: You were a major part of the legendary comeback in the 2001 All-Star Game, when the East outscored the West 41-21 in the fourth quarter to win 111-110. What do you remember about that?

DM: I think that’s still one of the best All-Star Games ever. I have that on my file. It’s still one of the best All-Star Games ever. We just wanted to kick their ass. They were talking so much trash. Allen Iverson was like, ‘Hey Deke, let’s go do it.’ I think I had, what, 35 rebounds? (22 rebounds – Ed.) It was ridiculous.

And Coach Brown looked at me in halftime, or the end of the third quarter, he said, ‘You’re coming with me to Philadelphia.’ In front of all the guys. And Allen Iverson was like, ‘Yeah, Coach, he’s coming with us.’ I thought it was a joke. You know, you’re around your friends, everybody’s joking. But I was realized it was not a joke. Two days later, I was shipped out.