Dikembe Mutombo joins Hawks legends with jersey retirement

ATLANTA — As the halftime buzzer sounded for Hawks-Celtics on Tuesday night, Dikembe Mutombo found himself in a waiting room adjacent to Philips Arena’s home tunnel, preparing to re-enter the court area in dignitary-like fashion. He was accompanied by a powerful entourage: NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Hawks principal owner Tony Ressler and CEO Steve Koonin, Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed, his former teammate Steve Smith, his family.

The entrance added weight to the moments leading up to Mutombo’s second career honor in three months.

First came his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame back in September. Then, he watched as his No. 55 jersey was unveiled in the rafters, joining the franchise’s short list of retired numbers alongside Bob Pettit, Lou Hudson and Dominique Wilkins.

Mutombo was asked in the aftermath whether he could choose between the Hall of Fame and jersey retirement. He couldn’t. "I’ll take both."

The 7-foot-2 defensive stalwart took a unique route to Tuesday’s ceremony. He played more games and blocked more shots as a member of the Denver Nuggets, who drafted him fourth overall in 1991. He retired in 2009 as a member of the Houston Rockets. In total, he played for six different franchises, never scored more than 17 points per game in a season and, over the course of his 18-year career, was teammates with 1978 Rookie of the Year Walter Davis and played against 2008 Rookie of the Year Kevin Durant.

Mutombo, the 49-year-old product of Congo, enjoyed his best years in Atlanta, however, capturing two of his four NBA Defensive Player of the Year awards as the Hawks grew into a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta remains his home to this day.

When Mutombo hit the free-agent market in the summer of 1996, it was a different NBA landscape. Teams pined for 7-footers to anchor their frontlines. The Hawks were coming off an embarrassing playoff series against the Orlando Magic in which Shaquille O’Neal had averaged nearly 28 points and 11 rebounds — coach Lenny Wilkens and general manager Pete Babcock had seen enough. Mutombo was joined by Hakeem Olajuwon and Alonzo Mourning on the open market that offseason, but Mutombo eventually became the target.

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When it was all said and done and Mutombo signed his five-year contract, Hawks team president Stan Kasten joked, "I’m much happier, but poorer." In Babcock’s words, the team had finally landed a legitimate center.

On the day of the signing, Mutombo reportedly asked Steve Smith, who took the microphone to help introduce the big man, to re-sign with the team and provide a perimeter 1-2 punch. Those two led a group that finished top-five in the East for three straight seasons before fizzling in 1999.

"It shows something of the character, the true character, of the team we did have. It was all focused on defense, which is something that not many coaches are teaching today," Mutombo said of his defensive accomplishments in Atlanta. " … I still regret a lot how the team was (broken) up. I think the breakup of this team in the late 2000s — I think it hurt so many people. Everybody was like, ‘Why, why, why, why?’ We did have some nice corps (pieces) in the NBA. A lot of people respected us."

The second-leading shot blocker in NBA history behind Olajuwon (3,289 blocks), Mutombo remains a staple in NBA lore for his finger wag and, perhaps more than anything, his humanitarian work, most notably in Africa. It took one question on Tuesday for him to deflect the attention from his on-court achievements to what still needs to be done.

"I think I have achieved a lot, still have more to do. I think with the gift, with the talent, God gave to me, I think I want to continue to make a difference," Mutombo said. "Our world is facing a lot of challenges right now. … I’m willing to be part of the change."

As he walked off the court and back into the tunnel, Mutombo’s 86-inch frame draped over Dominique Wilkins, his deep, unmistakable voice booming. The two were talking over one another, smiling. When a fan requesting a photo opportunity stopped them prior to their destination, the two Hall of Famers obliged — Wilkins putting on his game face, Mutombo unable to stop laughing.

Why not? Things are going well. His chosen franchise is just now reaching the heights he once aimed for during his playing days in Atlanta. His uniform hangs high above the Philips Arena court and his likeness can be found in Springfield, Mass., enshrined in basketball history.

"Being inducted into the Hall of Fame, I think, is the highest you can get in your career. But there’s not many people who get a chance to play the game in an arena where your jersey (hangs)," Mutombo said. "So every time that the next generation will come to warm up, a young man will look up (and think), ‘I’m playing on the floor that some of the great legends have walked on.’ It’s part of the vindication.

"My name will stay forever."