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Head of the Class : Denver's Dikembe Mutombo Is Standing Tall in a Season of Talented Rookie Players


DENVER — 'Twas the night before Christmas and all through the league, the stack of Mutombo tales was already . . . real big?

There was the time Dikembe Mutombo and his team, the Denver Nuggets, were in New Orleans to play the Chicago Bulls in an exhibition during the football season. Mutombo walked slowly across the artificial turf of the football field on his way to the locker room in the empty Superdome. He suddenly stopped, dropped his bag and said, in his bass-drum voice:

"Personal foul, No. 55, offense." He made a chopping motion on his wrist, imitating a football referee's signal for the penalty. Mutombo wears No. 55 for the Nuggets. "First down."

Last week, the Nuggets flew to Detroit and Mutombo walked to the back of the plane to talk to passengers and sign autographs. His signature is "DM 55," which he recently shortened from "Mutombo 55" to cut down on the possibility of writer's cramp. He certainly could not sign his full name, which is longer than his size-20 shoes: Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean Jacque Wamutombo. Mutombo said he likes to mingle.

"The people love me," he said. "They see me working hard, trying to succeed. I am easy to introduce myself to the people. I love being around people."

The Pistons wound up beating the Nuggets, though, and Mutombo was questioned afterward about a certain defensive play.

"Ah, but I had to stop the penetration of Isiah Thomas," Mutombo said.

Mutombo was quickly reminded that doctors had put 40 stitches in Thomas' head the week before and the Piston guard had not played. Mutombo shrugged.

"What do I know?" he said. "I do not know all the players."

Ah, but Dikembe, they are learning all about you, very quickly. And what the NBA is discovering about the Nuggets' 7-foot-2, 25-year-old rookie center, is that he might be signing his name, playing his game and expanding the Mutombo mystique for a very long time.

Here he is, the Franchise, which is pretty heady stuff for a sports team that had been going downhill so fast, it must have been on skis. Coach Doug Moe was fired after his seventh winning season in nine years. The team was sold and attendance plummeted. One of the team's owners didn't pay his rent and came home one day to find his furniture in the street.

Coach Paul Westhead was brought in to revive the team, tried a fast-paced game but, unfortunately, had too many players who would have been better moving furniture in the street. Westhead, a Shakespearean scholar, found himself in a tempest. The Nuggets lost 60 of 82 games.

Then Mutombo arrived. Suddenly, the clouds parted, the sun shone and basketballs began getting knocked back into people's faces. The Nuggets are 10-15 this season.

"Dikembe Mutombo is our guy," Westhead said. "He is our Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, 15 years early. He does only good things. Therefore, he will eventually do only better things."

Mutombo leads a charge of rookies that are having a sudden and not altogether expected impact on the NBA. He leads the Nuggets in scoring, rebounding and blocked shots, starting on the same unit with another heralded rookie, Mark Macon of Temple.

Around the league, the rest of the rookies are growing in stature almost daily. Larry Johnson, the 6-7, 250-pound No. 1 pick from Nevada Las Vegas, leads the Charlotte Hornets and is already showing signs of superstardom. Besides rebounding, scoring and running the court with surprising speed for a big man, Johnson also doesn't do telephone interviews.

Others showing no hang-ups about rookie success in the NBA are 6-7 guard Steve Smith of Miami, 6-10 forward Doug Smith of Dallas, 6-9 Billy Owens of Golden State and 6-8 Stacy Augmon of Atlanta. All either start or get considerable playing time and have made significant impacts on their teams.

When Mike Monroe of the Denver Post described Johnson as Mutombo's chief contender for rookie of the year, Mutombo disagreed.

"He is not my contender," Mutombo said. "I am by myself."

Actually, he might be right. What sets Mutombo apart is that his sphere of influence has expanded to every city in which he has played. Mutombomania?

His is sort of the classic story: One of eight children of a principal and a Sunday school teacher in Zaire, he didn't play basketball until he was 18 and a senior in high school. But he spent three years with Coach John Thompson at Georgetown, where Mutombo learned English, changed his major from premed to linguistics and diplomacy, and began to master the jump hook.

He almost certainly took Wealth 101. Drafted No. 4 in the first round by the Nuggets, he signed a five-year, $13.7-million contract on the trunk of a car, then went inside to attend practice and start throwing shots all the way back home to Kinshasa.

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