Earlier this week Dikembe Mutombo, an eighteen-year veteran of the NBA, ended his career as a pro basketball player after a nasty knee injury in the playoffs. The man didn’t retire willfully; it took an injury to take him out commission. He probably should’ve retired six times by now, but the Houston Rockets just keep him bringing him back. He’s a great guy, so why not?
Before meeting the gigantic African, whose full name Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo (seriously), I knew very little about him other than he’s done an unreal amount of humanitarian work in Congo and other parts of Africa. The man funded a hospital for Christ’s sake. He’s practically a saint, and at seven-foot-two, that’s a whole lot of saint to go around.
Anyway, when the Rockets came through Chicago last year I was unable to meet up with him before the game, but since he is one of only a handful of guys still in the league from when I used to watch basketball as a kid, I made it a point to do a quick interview afterwards. Even that proved difficult. When someone on the roster doesn’t play—and therefore doesn’t sweat—they’re in and out of the locker room extremely quickly. By the time security opens up the doors for media availability, most of the Did-Not-Play guys zoom right out.
This was the case with Deke, but I stopped him and shook his hand while asking for a quick interview.
His response, even though I knew what to expect, rumbled my entire body. You see, Mutombo is known for his deep, gravelly Cookie Monster voice. So when he responded with, “Yes, but I am on my way out,” I was sort of star struck. He has the sort of iconic voice that reminds you, hey, you’re talking to Dikembe Mutombo.
So I popped out my hand recorder and walked him to the bus, and we did the interview while walking, his gigantic tree branch of an arm on my shoulder for the entire walk. It made me feel like a child, but I could also empathize for all those kids in Africa that have gotten help from him over the years. He really does wrap you up and make you feel at peace. Generally there are butterflies when you interview someone you admire that much, but he was able to just put me at ease. It’s almost a superpower, like that creepy quiet vampire brother in “Twilight.” And yes, I just made a “Twilight” reference. Right, ladies?
Truthfully, I haven’t the first idea of what the interview was about. It was gobbledygook one-on-one that almost nobody cared about (probably pretty similar to how nobody cares about how I met Dikembe Mutombo), but it was a cool experience from me. I remember watching when eight-seed Denver upset one-seed Seattle in, I think, 1994. As a twelve-year-old in the height of my love for professional basketball, that was A Moment.
And that’s why I loved Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo. Also, because of that awesome name.