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Wednesday, April 22, 2009
Dikembe Mutombo: Gravity and Light

This is one of the best NBA videos ever, and it's 100% Mutombo.

Almost wherever he goes, Dikembe Mutombo is the loudest, gravelliest, tallest and smiliest person in the room. He can fill any amount of space -- with laughter, stories, elbows or anything else. Everywhere he goes, people notice him, talk to him, and interact with him.

So there a thousand stories about Dikembe Mutombo. On the day he says he won't play basketball again, these tales are popping up all over the place, and as you'll see below, they are loaded down with comedy. That's right! He brought that on, and his clowning should be celebrated!

But just as he'll happily toss around a "Fat-rick Ewing" joke to rib an old friend, Mutombo has also been the most serious of NBA players. He has always been the NBA player most comfortable addressing the United Nations, administering polio vaccines, being name-checked in a State of the Union address or building a hospital outside Kinshasa from scratch. He has degrees in linguistics and diplomacy, and you can tell.

A regret of mine is not having had the time to ask him about the book I saw him reading in 2001, when he was new to the Sixers. Right there at his locker, he had his face buried in a book that I swear to you must have been 1,000 pages, and it was an academic-sounding investigation of (Anyone want to guess the topic? Think heavy) ... god.

Even as he'd yell out across the room (I think he thought he was using a regular speaking voice) making fun of Aaron McKie or Allen Iverson, being all lightness and chuckles, he was also always weighty and meaningful. The ridiculous gravitas of his voice was no accident. Even as he's joking about overeating ... he's thinking about preventing famine, disease and widespread death.

And it's to those causes that he'll now, no doubt, commit the time that used to go to basketball.

I'm devestated for Mutombo that he can't run around like a young man anymore, making tons of money and wagging fingers in people's faces for kicks. But I'm also fully aware that he's better prepared than just about any athlete ever has been to thrive in life after basketball. I can believe he'll be heart-broken about basketball, but I can't believe he'll stop smiling.

When I think of Dikembe Mutombo, I think of a man smiling. There's a lot of that in these stories:

(Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)