How Dikembe Mutombo's Finger Changed The NBA
Five years after his retirement, one of the greatest shot-blockers in NBA history is as visible as ever, thanks to a trademark finger-wag that helped him become an icon and clear a path for the league's globalization.
“Back then, I would shake my head when I used to block shots,” Mutombo, now 47, recalls at his Atlanta foundation’s headquarters, where he spends much of his time these days. “I really didn’t have a signature...I had to come up with something [for when] I was dominating a game.”
Mutombo, wearing a light blue dress shirt with sleeves two inches too short, sinks into his black leather office chair, extends his long legs the width of his wooden desk, and sends a text to his wife, Rose. Inside the bright green-and-yellow office, reminders of Mutombo’s career are scattered alongside photographs from trips to Africa. Several boxes of new high-tops rest on a spare table, alongside a Mutombo-licensed basketball. In front of his monitor sits a mouse pad prominently displaying his face, which, much to Mutombo’s surprise, was — is — still very much everywhere.
“Whenever [someone does] the finger wag, nothing comes to mind but Dikembe,” says Knicks legend and fellow Georgetown alum Patrick Ewing, who mentored a young Mutombo and coached him years later. “Like when people stick out their tongue, you don't even have to say [Michael Jordan's] name. You already know who they're emulating.”
The wag has become so famous that today it nearly outshines the staggering things Dikembe Mutombo achieved on the court. He appeared on eight all-star squads, earned four NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards, and blocked more shots than anyone in the league’s history with the exception of Hakeem Olajuwon. But if Mutombo eventually reaches the Hall of Fame — he becomes eligible in 2015 — it’ll have more than a little to do with the cultural influence of his right hand’s index finger. In other words, the wag is what made Mutombo Mutombo, what turned a lumbering non-native English speaker who excelled on the forgotten end of the floor into a bona fide superstar.
Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo (nicknamed “Deke”) was born in 1966, the seventh of 10 children, in Kinshasa, the capital of what is now the Congo. His father was a school superintendent who required his young son to contribute to his school tuition. As a child, Mutombo dreamed first of becoming a doctor, and the first sport he loved was soccer. It wasn’t until his late teens that he began playing basketball.
“He was tall, thin, and lanky at the time,” recalls former Georgetown point guard Mark Tillmon. “He didn’t really know how to play... He was so green that Charles Smith and I were blocking his shots.” Tillmon and Smith are 6 feet 2 inches and 6 feet, respectively.
Mutombo entered the 1988–9 season as an anonymous third-string big man. The 7-foot-2-inch center was so unknown to the public that Thompson wryly told reporters during a preseason press conference to watch out for the 5-foot-10-inch point guard he had recruited from the Congo. Mutombo averaged only 11 minutes per game his first year, but flashed glimpses of his devastating defensive potential. During a January 1989 game against St. John’s, the Hoyas’ star center Alonzo Mourning picked up two early fouls and landed on the bench. Thompson yelled down to Mutombo, “Africa, Africa, come here.”
“He said, ‘Son, I'm going to put you in,’” Mutombo recalls. “‘I know you're not playing, and I'm not asking you to do much. All I want is for you to go out, block shots, and rebound. Do not try to score! Do nothing.’”
Mutombo blocked 12 shots, a single game school record. Thompson soon began playing Mourning and Mutombo alongside each other, forming a towering front line that the press nicknamed “Rejection Row.” Once timid and green, Mutombo became confident, even cocky as an upperclassman. During his senior season, incoming freshman forward Robert Churchwell remembers Mutombo’s trademark mix of playfulness and intimidation — the wag’s primary ingredients.
“I could never dunk on Dikembe,” Churchwell says. “He would always say, ‘Robert, what are you trying to do? You can’t do that to me!’”
Prior to the early 1990s, the NBA lacked a significant global presence. The league had featured foreign players since its inception, but they were largely journeymen who received little fanfare. In the ‘80s, talented European players Dražen Petrović, Vlade Divac, and Detlef Schrempf made a name for non-Americans in the league. Around the same time, 7-foot-7-inch Manute Bol and the young star Hakeem Olajuwon had NBA scouts looking on the African continent for more big men. But these players were rare exceptions in a league dominated by Americans.
The 1992 Summer Olympics were a watershed event for the league on the international stage. For the first time, the IOC allowed professionals to play for their home countries, and the U.S. fielded the Michael Jordan- and Magic Johnson-led Dream Team, widely considered one of the greatest collections of talent to ever play a team sport together.
The dynamic Americans raised the game’s international profile to unprecedented heights. Basketball quickly turned into one of the world’s most played sports. The NBA today is televised in 215 countries and territories, and since 1991, the number of foreign NBA players on opening-day rosters has quadrupled.
The Dream Team set the stage for a player like Mutombo, who was blessed with an infectious personality and radiating intelligence, to become its first real ambassador, particularly in Africa. And the wag would become his passport.
But first, he needed to land on an NBA roster. Despite Mutombo’s obvious potential, he was still raw when he entered the 1991 draft at 25. Nevertheless, he caught the eye of Bernie Bickerstaff — then the Nuggets' president and general manager — who was revamping the defense of the league’s worst franchise. He selected Mutombo with the fourth overall pick.
“There was no doubt in terms of who we wanted [to draft],” Bickerstaff says. “We wanted to rebuild the program. Dikembe was a starting point.”
It would take three years for Mutombo to drag the Nuggets far enough out of the cellar to give the wag a national stage: the 1994 NBA playoffs. The Nuggets, who snuck in as the Western Conference’s eighth and lowest seed, faced the league-best Sonics. No eighth seed had ever defeated a top seed, and most beat writers, analysts, and fans wrote off Denver against the title contenders and their explosive power forward, Shawn Kemp.
The Sonics dominated the opening two games and stood on the verge of a series sweep (first-round series were best of five until 2003). Before Game 3, Mutombo told the press that he had dreamt about a comeback series win. The media scoffed, as did Kemp and his teammates. But Mutombo responded with 19 points, 13 rebounds, and 6 blocks, helping the Nuggets win their first postseason game in six years. Momentum swung in Denver’s favor. They staved off another elimination game in a Game 4 overtime win. And by then, Mutombo was in the Sonics’ heads.
“Once he started to wag that finger, guys would get caught up and really try to challenge him,” Kemp says. “He was trying to get them to play his own game, which was [getting them to try] to attack him to make it easier for him to block shots.”
Game 5 also went to overtime. The announcers gushed over Mutombo, comparing him to Bill Russell, the legendary Celtic. With around 1:25 left, Denver held a slim 96-94 lead. Near the three-point line, Kemp rolled off a pick to grab an inbound pass from Schrempf. Kemp glared at Mutombo, darted right, then left, and leapt toward the basket. The Nuggets center gathered, extended his right arm toward the scoreboard, and met Kemp at the rim.
“Another block by Mutombo!” roared the announcer. It was his eighth block of the game and his 31st in the series, shattering the previous playoff record.
“[Kemp] thought he had me,” Mutombo recalls. “He went up strong, and boom! I stopped it.”
The Nuggets went on to win the game, and Mutombo grabbed the game’s final rebound. He clenched the ball, shrugged off Kemp’s final jabs, and collapsed to the court. Although the Nuggets lost in the next round, their dominant, finger-wagging giant was one of the biggest stories — if not the biggest story — of the 1994 playoffs.
“The finger wagging thing … became contagious and iconic,” remembers Bickerstaff. “It became a part of him.”
In large part because of the wag, Mutombo commanded huge attention during his first free agency in the summer of 1996. By then, he had claimed his first Defensive Player of the Year award and returned to the playoffs. The Nuggets lowballed Mutombo, and he signed a five-year contract for more than $50 million with the Atlanta Hawks, years in which he played the best basketball of his career. He won three more Defensive Player of the Year awards, two rebounding championships, and the 1999 IBM Award given to the league’s biggest statistical contributor to his team.
And Mutombo’s greatest years as a player coincided with his greatest years as a taunter. “The finger wag was at an all-time high in Atlanta,” says former Hawks guard Steve Smith. “He blocked shots, took away points, and would do it to crowds and players. People hated it on the road.”
Home fans erupted at every wag. Lenny Wilkens, then the Hawks’ coach, remembers Mutombo’s swaggering presence on those mid-'90s Hawks teams. “He liked to let you know you couldn’t just walk to the basket on him if he was there.”
Mutombo’s reputation as a fearsome rim protector didn’t go unnoticed by the league’s superstars, who itched to dunk over the giant. For his part, Mutombo took enormous pride in not allowing dunks against the game’s great leapers, especially Michael Jordan, who was in the midst of his second three-peat with the Bulls. “I didn't want to be in one of his posters,” Mutombo says. “There was one of Michael flying above every big man in the league. It took him years [to] dunk on me.”
Mutombo talked trash about that streak on the court for more than six years. At the 1997 NBA All-Star game, he jokingly asked the league’s biggest star if he needed help from a teammate to climb Mount Mutombo. “Mike, you want me to call Scottie?” Mutombo quipped in the Eastern Conference locker room.
Months later, the famously vindictive Jordan returned the favor. During a second-round playoff matchup, Jordan caught a baseline pass from Bulls center Luc Longley and brutally slammed over Mutombo with his right hand. Jordan slowly stepped backward, glared at Mutombo, and wagged the finger back. The refs called a technical.
“The stadium went crazy,” Mutombo recalls. “They had to stop the game. Everybody [was like], ‘He got you, Deke, he got you! You cannot talk trash no more. He got you!'”
Opposing players weren’t the only group upset by the wag; complaints piled up from coaches and referees slowly started cracking down. Mutombo initially refused to stop for them or even for then-NBA Commissioner David Stern.
“I received a call from the commissioner, who said that it would be better if I could stop waving to the players,” Mutombo says. “I disregard[ed] it. I kept doing it and getting technical fouls.”
Eventually, Mutombo devised an ingenious solution: aiming his finger toward the crowd to avoid those calls. The wag was so deeply ingrained in Mutombo’s presence and personal brand that fully stopping was never an option.
“Everything became just about finger wag,” Mutombo says. “TV, everybody that want[ed] me to do something want[ed] me to do it with my finger wag. It's a signature. When you do it more than 2,000 times, you really have an identity.”
“There's not many people [from Congo] who made it to the league," Biyombo says. "Looking at him, you thought it was possible too. As you know, watching him, the finger [wag], and all that stuff, we had to start stealing it.”
1997 was a big year for Mutombo in and out of basketball: In December he started his eponymous foundation, which is devoted to improving health care conditions throughout the Congo. The foundation’s early work involved sending medical supplies, pharmaceutical items, hospital beds, and ambulances to Kinshasa. And all along the way, Mutombo used the wags to spread awareness about the dire health situation in his country.
“It’s an identity people can buy into easily,” Mutombo says. “I can help with a campaign [that] says, ‘No, no, no!’ We want to say ‘no!’ to polio, ‘no!’ to malaria.”
Mutombo’s growing profile allowed him to raise tens of millions for the foundation’s health care initiatives, and to become an NBA global ambassador, a CARE spokesperson, and a youth emissary for the United Nations Development Program. Last summer, Forbes featured him on the cover of the magazine’s philanthropy issue alongside the likes of prominent 21st-century nonprofit emissaries Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Nobel Peace Prize-winning economist Muhammad Yunus, and Bono.
A decade of humanitarian work culminated with the 2007 opening of the Biamba Marie Mutombo Hospital. Named for Mutombo’s late mother, the $29 million facility is a state-of-the-art 170-bed hospital with the country’s first CT scanner and an invaluable fistula-repair program. Mutombo contributed $23 million of his own money and convinced players and owners to chip in more than $1.2 million.
“From the finger wag, I was able to raise many, many, many dollars from corporations and individuals to save lives in Africa,” Mutombo says. “I had a dream to become a doctor, but my dream was transformed by building a hospital [and] carries the same life mission.”
Between his accomplishments in the NBA and his philanthropy, Mutombo became an icon in the Congo on the order of Manny Pacquiao in the Philippines — a national sporting hero renowned for great deeds at home and abroad. He made hoop dreams, and global accomplishment, seem possible in a war-torn nation that lacked a rich basketball history. Biyombo, now an imposing 6-foot-9-inch center with the Charlotte Hornets, frequently borrows the wag as a tribute after his own blocks.
"Mutombo said, 'You're going to have to buy that. You can't steal my finger like that. I own it,'” Biyombo recalls. "I do it sometimes and don't realize it. It just became a habit that's now mine."
The wag’s presence on the NBA’s largest stage took Mutombo’s celebrity to unprecedented heights. Conan O’Brien invited him onto Late Night, where they chatted about Shaq, the Congo, and the Rumble in the Jungle. Following the appearance, Mutombo landed another wave of commercials, and his solid play continued into the next year, when he earned another all-star appearance.
But the 2002 nod would be Mutombo’s last. Nagging injuries and diminishing results limited his role with the Sixers, Nets, and Knicks from 2002 to 2004. Mutombo joined the Houston Rockets for his final five seasons, in which he mentored a new international icon, Yao Ming.
Mutombo’s final in-game wag came during the 2009 NBA playoffs. In the opening first-round game against the Trailblazers, Mutombo sidestepped his way into the paint, impeded an uncontested Brandon Roy drive, and extended his right hand to the ceiling of the Rose Garden. Winding up for a dunk, Roy had to force an awkward last-minute layup attempt that Mutombo altered slightly — not exactly intimidating, but effective. Mutombo turned beneath the basket, cocked his hand high, and brandished his finger one last time at Trailblazers fans. Ming, the Rockets’ starting center, rose from the bench and wagged back.
Late in the first quarter of Game 2, Mutombo ruptured a tendon in his right knee. After the game, at the age of 42, he announced his retirement.
Five years after the end of his basketball career, Dikembe Mutombo finds himself in a curious position: He’s as famous as ever.
“Being retired, I never knew your name [could] be regarded as an icon for something,” Mutombo says. “A new generation can identify me ... just from the finger wag.”
Dozens of terrific NBA players have faded into obscurity away from the court, and it’s possible Mutombo, without the wag, would today be a respected but forgotten minor star — a freakish athlete with accented English, not really part of the popular American sports, and cultural, consciousness. Instead, a playful gesture born from a marketing campaign made Mutombo one of the league’s first true global icons. More than that, it ensured that he became an essential part of the history of the game.
“[The wag] gave me an identity,” Mutombo says. “I made the promise to myself that by the time I walked away from this game, I [would be] remembered. I knew I wanted to be remembered for blocking shots. I was letting the world know who I am.”