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Dikembe Mutombo Is a Big Man With Some Big Potential

January 22, 1991|MARK MASKE | THE WASHINGTON POST

WASHINGTON — Finally, Dikembe Mutombo speaks the language. Not French or English, or even Portugese, Spanish or any of the five African tribal dialects he knows -- all of those came relatively easily. The language of basketball, that was a struggle, one that took even this bright and delightfully engaging former doctor-to-be from Zaire the better part of his four years here (and countless, often less-than-pleasant tutorials from Georgetown Coach John Thompson) to conquer.

Now, however, Mutombo can talk the game almost as well as he plays it. And not just the basic jargon, like "pick-and-roll" or "defensive rotation." He recites blocked-shot records from memory, for he's certain they all will be his soon. And, most important, the words "lottery pick" roll gracefully off his tongue, almost as if he had been practicing them from the first time he picked up a basketball nearly seven years ago.

The refrain is familiar by now: After virtually every Hoyas game, their senior center will sit by his locker and tell whomever happens to ask that he must concentrate on his rebounding and defense, for that is what will make him a lottery pick in the next NBA draft. And Mutombo is not alone in that assessment.

"Dikembe is going to be a great pro," Thompson said recently, and most NBA scouts and general managers seem to agree. "I like to sit back and listen to how people say how great some of these kids are now, because in a few years Dikembe's going to surpass them all. In terms of his playing career, he's on an upward curve.

"Basketball-wise, he's still just a babe in the woods. But he hustles all the time and he has what you can't teach, and that's heart. He hasn't been brought up being given things and being told how great he is, and he wants to get better. And he will get better -- much, much better."

This is heady stuff for a one-time soccer goalie who took up basketball only because his brother and father forced him to do so, a formerly gangly youngster who fell flat on his face -- literally, gashing open his chin -- during his first practice session and detested the game for his first month of playing it.

"If you had asked me then, I never would have thought he would be any good at basketball," said Mutombo's older brother Ilo, who plays for Division II Southern Indiana. "I would have had a good laugh. Now I am so proud of him I can't even express it."

Indeed, it is a curious tale, and it has produced the most unforeseeable of reactions. Wilt Chamberlain once observed that "nobody roots for Goliath," yet no one seems to pull too vehemently against Dikembe Mutombo. He's as endearing as he is awe-inspiring, more likely to react with a pained look to a low-post elbow planted in his chest than with any sort of retaliation.

"He's impossible not to like," said Alonzo Mourning, Mutombo's heralded teammate who may be the best testament to Mutombo's potential greatness: How many players can force someone the caliber of Mourning to switch positions?

The Mutombo story began in Kinshasa, the capital of Zaire and a sprawling city of 2.5 million people. Dikembe Mutombo is a shortened version of his name, adopted to accommodate Americans (and the back of his jersey); actually, he is Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean Jacque Wamutombo. He is properly addressed as Mutombo, which is what relatives call him. For his American friends, it's now simply Deke.

His family was middle class, with his parents and his eight siblings (six brothers and two sisters) sharing a large, six-bedroom house in downtown Kinshasa. His father, now retired, was an educator, working first as a principal and later in Zaire's equivalent of the education department. His children were given no choice but to do well in school. "Of course we got good grades," Ilo said. "Our father was a principal."

Dikembe, however, was particularly studious. As far back as he now can remember, he dreamed of being a doctor. "I wanted it very badly," he said, and it was an ambition he maintained until he arrived at Georgetown and was told he wouldn't have enough time for both basketball and medical school. "I was very disappointed," he said. "I thought I could do both, but they told me it was impossible. ... Maybe I can still be a doctor one day, after basketball."

He switched high schools, laying the groundwork for his medical career by going to the Institute Boboto, where the science and math classes were more challenging. At about the same time, Ilo and his father decided that Dikembe, 16, had to take up basketball.

The entire family was tall -- 6-foot-9 Ilo says his father is 6-4, his mother 6-2 or 6-3 -- but it was clear Dikembe was going to be the tallest. (He's now listed at 7-2, and he has admitted to being 7-3; but a number of opponents and several pro scouts insist he is at least 7-4). And his soccer skills and a previous interest in the martial arts demonstrated his coordination.

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