Mutombo says enough to questioning his age
After 16 seasons in the NBA, nearly 3,200 blocked shots, eight All-Star appearances and four Defensive Player of the Year awards, Dikembe Mutombo has had enough.
The 40-year-old says he's tired of jokes about his age.
But that changed recently when family members began taking offense to the regularity of such jokes during television broadcasts. Mutombo told ESPN.com this week that it's reached the point that he plans to seek out NBA commissioner David Stern for advice on how to at least stop TV commentators from openly accusing the league's oldest active player of misrepresenting his birthdate.
"My wife [Rose] just mentioned that to me a few days ago," Mutombo said. "She said: 'Honey, I think this joke has gone on too long and it has to stop. Is there a way you can tell the commissioner during the All-Star break to let the world know that this thing needs to stop, from a media standpoint all the way to the players?'
"It really doesn't disturb me, but it hurts when your wife starts feeling uncomfortable about it. Even my daughter [Carrie] says, 'Daddy, why are they talking about your age?' She's nine years old and she knows about it.
"When people think your father is a liar, it makes you look bad in front of your children," Mutombo said. "Kids don't know when it's a joke and when it's not a joke. It never bothered me before, but it starts bothering me more as I'm getting questions from my wife [and] especially my daughter. She left me a voice message in the middle of a game [recently that said], 'Daddy, they're talking about your age on TV. That's not funny.' "
Mutombo's frustration comes at a time, ironically, when the Congo-born center's on-court production is generating talk about how much game he still has left. Before managing just eight rebounds in Wednesday night's home loss to Phoenix, Mutombo had pulled in 10 or more rebounds in 11 straight games since taking over as the Rockets' starting center in place of the injured Yao Ming.
It is Mutombo's longest such streak since the 2000-01 season. The only other fortysomething in NBA history with a similar streak longer than five games is Robert Parish, who reached double figures in rebounds in six straight games for Boston in January 1994. Minnesota's Kevin Garnett is the only other player in the league this season with at least 10 rebounds in 10 straight games.
"[Mutombo] has found the Fountain of Youth," Rockets teammate Shane Battier told the Houston Chronicle last week.
"He's playing like a very young man," said Rockets general manager Carroll Dawson. "To me, he's playing like he's not even 40. He's averaging a rebound, what, every 2.4 minutes? Did [Dennis] Rodman even do that? He's such a popular figure for all the good he's done around the world, such a humanitarian, that I hate to hear [any negativity]. But I figure people would be saying he's younger [than 40], not older. If you're going to reassess his age, go the other way."
Said Mutombo: "Rebounding the way I've been rebounding... I didn't know I still have so much left in the tank. You wonder yourself because it's my 16th season. Still having this type of performance, it makes you feel so good about yourself, physically and mentally."
Yet Mutombo says he's serious about trying to hush the jokes, which he traces to playing his rookie season in Denver in 1991-92 as a 25-year-old. He was already 21 when he left the Democratic Republic of Congo (then known as Zaire) to attend Georgetown in 1987.
It has already been a very newsy season for Mutombo, who donated $15 million in August for the completion of a hospital in Congo in his late mother's honor. It's the first modern medical facility in Mutombo's homeland to be built in some 40 years.
He found himself at the center of a much more unsavory controversy in late October when an Orlando Magic fan taunted Mutombo with racial slurs during a preseason game, leading to the fan's ban by the league from attending any NBA game for the entire 2006-07 season.
But the focus is back on the floor with Houston going 9-4 without Yao and Mutombo, after playing a bit-part backup role over the past two-plus seasons, logging nearly 32 minutes per game in January. With Yao sidelined by a leg injury, he's responded by averaging 6.1 points, 13.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks this month.
Mutombo has succeeded in convincing league officials to let him persist with his trademark finger-wagging after blocked shots -- as long as he directs that gesture toward a section of the crowd without wagging his finger in the direction of an opponent -- and believes Stern will be sympathetic to his anti-joke crusade, too.
"The commissioner and I are good friends," Mutombo said. "I will find a way somehow to talk to him.
"He's a great man. He can make it stop."
Marc Stein is the senior NBA writer for ESPN.com. To e-mail him, click here.