Commentary

Mutombo's legacy to last beyond hoops

Originally Published: April 22, 2009
By Chris Sheridan | ESPN.com

Dikembe MutomboRocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesDikembe Mutombo was a 4-time Defensive Player of the Year and an 8-time All-Star.

There are a million Dikembe Mutombo stories to be told, and it boggles the mind to imagine how many more millions of stories will be told in the future by all the people in Africa whose lives would have been lost had it not been for the $29 million hospital Mutombo built on the outskirts of the Congolese capital of Kinshasa.

Twenty, 30, 100 years from now, Mutombo's legacy will be that hospital in his impoverished home country, the place Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean Jacque Wamutombo was born and raised, where he learned to speak five African dialects along with French, Spanish, Portuguese and English.

There is a story about the money Mutombo had to pay to squatters who were farming on the hospital site when funds were still being raised, battles with the government over land-use permits, the story of Mutombo's personal $3.5 million down payment on the facility in 2001, and his subsequent $15 million donation toward operating funds after the facility -- the first modern medical facility built in that country in 40 years -- opened its doors in 2006.

There are stories about elbows (ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy told one on the air the other night, about insisting that Mutombo always wear elbow pads during practice to protect his Houston Rockets teammates), stories about nightclubs, stories about his trip to the White House. Too many stories to tell in one place, really, although there was one story that was being retold Wednesday after word spread around the NBA and the world that Mutombo's career apparently had come to an end.

It's a good story, and it concerns what will be Mutombo's non-humanitarian legacy, or what we'll remember him for from his time in the NBA.

The finger wag.

It was Mutombo's distinctive gesture, the raising of his right index, the shaking of said finger from side to side -- a universal gesture familiar to babies, grandparents and everyone in between, all across the planet: "That was a no-no."

Well, once upon a time, a certain NBA official tried to take that gesture away from Mutombo, and that was the story Rod Thorn told ESPN.com on Wednesday -- a day after Mutombo's illustrious career came to a premature end when he injured his knee and was wheeled off the court on a stretcher in the Houston Rockets' 107-103 Game 2 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers on Tuesday night.

"It was one conversation, it was on the phone, and no, it was not a short conversation," Thorn recalled. "There were never any short conversations with Dikembe, because he was always trying to tell you how what you were explaining to him was wrong."

Thorn, currently the president of the New Jersey Nets, was Stu Jackson's predecessor in the job commonly nicknamed VP of Violence, what the NBA officially calls the executive vice president of basketball operations.

It was a different NBA a decade ago, a league in which fights were not commonplace but were somewhat tolerated. Handchecking was allowed to keep the quick guards out of the paint, and those who got in there anyway against Mutombo's teams often found their shots emphatically rejected by a 7-foot-2 giant who would then stand over them or stare at them, waving that long, pointy finger in the air.

Tolerance for the gesture varied, but there was a rising tide of discontent by the time Thorn and his boss, NBA commissioner David Stern, decided intolerance would be the most prudent way to prevent a future finger wag from turning into a bench-clearing brawl.

Yes, Mutombo was en route to becoming an eight-time All-Star and four-time Defensive Player of the Year. But the NBA was beginning its way down the path toward making the game much less physical and more nonconfrontational, and the decision was made to telephone Mutombo and tell him to knock it off.

"We thought he was getting carried away with it; players were getting upset. I told him: 'You've already blocked his shot, and now, in his mind, you're trying to humiliate him, too,'" said Thorn, who chuckled as he recounted how Mutombo reacted to the call.

As gravelly as Mutombo's voice was, it could boom, too.

[+] EnlargeDikembe Mutombo
Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty ImagesMutombo was never afraid to offer up a helping hand ... or his trademark finger wag.

And what Thorn heard coming out of the earpiece of his phone was an unhappy, deep-voiced lecturer giving an impassioned plea for this unfair and unwise decision to be repealed.

"What are you guys doing to me? You are taking away my trademark?!" Thorn recalled Mutombo arguing, refusing to accept the notion of an outright ban, and pretty much refusing to let the conversation end until Thorn backed down.

What eventually emerged was a compromise, with the NBA allowing Mutombo to perform his signature finger wag as long as he was looking toward the stands when he did it. The rules were clearly spelled out, and Mutombo was on notice that he couldn't make the gesture toward an opposing player or toward the opposing team's bench. And if he claimed he was gesturing toward the fans directly behind the opposing bench, well, that excuse was not going to fly.

"He became a recidivist every now and then, and then we'd call him on it, and after a couple T's he got the message," Thorn said.

The Mutombo Rule eventually seemed to lapse, and it was not uncommon over the final couple of seasons of the 42-year-old's career to see a referee turn a blind eye (along with the slightest of upturned grins) toward Mutombo when he crossed the line and gave that old-school finger wag, the one with the stare attached.

In the end, they'd let him get away with it, knowing that this giant of a man was one of the game's gifts to the planet, and the money that a technical foul would cost Mutombo (a player's first five techs in any season come with an accompanying $1,000 fine) was better off staying in Mutombo's wallet, since some of that money would inevitably cycle back to the sick people in Kinshasa whose health would not be getting restored had it not been for Mutombo, his famous finger wag and his huge heart.

The feeling seemed to be that we would see that finger wag only a few more times on the court. Sadly, it now appears we've seen it for the final time.

But happily, it is not the most important thing he'll be remembered for.

Chris Sheridan covers the NBA for ESPN Insider. To e-mail Sheridan, click here.

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