What is it about 7-footers in this league? There's more to them, so they have more to give? Anyway, Dikembe Mutombo, who was preparing information to send me about his latest humanitarian campaign, tore up his knee Tuesday night in the Houston-Portland series and announced his retirement a hours later. As he says, it was time. He is the NBA's oldest player at 42. He has a young family. And he has grand plans the $29 million, 300-bed hospital he constructed two years ago in his native Congo. Mutombo - who was known as Deke throughout his 18-year career - provided $19 million of his own earnings to complete the facility. He also only half-jokingly told me that he squeezed several thousands ouf of NBA Commissioner David Stern whenever funds ran low. "My good friend David always comes through," Mutombo said, laughing, in his booming voice. The feelings were reciprocated. When speaking about retired Kings center (and fellow humanitarian) Vlade Divac a few weeks ago, the Commissioner quipped, "Divac was Mutombo before Mutombo."
Since I'm sure Deke will be more than a little preoccupied these next several weeks about his knee (rest? surgery?), I decided to offer some of the information he was able to provide when the Rockets' visited Sacramento the last week of the season: His new campaign is a grassroots effort to lure 100,000 viewers to his web site (www.DMF.org or call 1-877-funddmf.) and obtain donations from each of $20 or more per year. The funds will be used to operate the hospital, pay the doctors and nurses, and provide medicine and treatment, mostly for women and children. While chatting in the visitors locker room here during that last visit, Deke admitted that he was "shocked" at the high cost of operating the facility in Kinshasa, and mentioned his fears about malaria outbreaks and an ongoing crisis with HIV. "I am going to keep working on this," he said, "but I'm going to need a lot of help from all the people I have known all these years."
Once again, that website address is www.DMF.org.
THE FINGER WAG WILL BE MISSED
Mutombo, who had a booming, hearty laugh and a wicked sense of humor, was a delightful presence, as well as a formidable, if occasionally confounding competitor. The stories about his sharp, swinging elbows inflicting pain and suffering, occasionally dislodging an opponent's teeth, are all true. Several players and coaches argued that the bony 7-foot-2 center should be required to wear elbow pads, though to no avail. But the league eventually placed some restriction on Mutombo's habit of blocking a shot, then shaking his head and wagging his right index finger at his victim. Taunting, they called it. Mutombo was told to direct his finger wagging elsewhere, say, toward the fans. But for some, including his former Atlanta Hawks coach Lenny Wilkens, that wasn't enough. Lenny hated it when Mutombo would wag the finger and stand under the basket, while play continued. Finally, the two compromised: Deke could wag the finger and shake his head, but only if doing so while running downcourt.