A condensed version of Dan Patrick's interview with Atlanta Hawks center Dikembe Mutombo appears in the Feb. 5 edition of ESPN the Magazine.
|Dikembe Mutombo is in his fifth season with the Hawks. He was drafted by the Nuggets and played in Denver for five years.|
Dan Patrick: Did you vote?
Dikembe Mutombo: No, because I can't vote. But if I had a vote, I know who I was going to vote for.
DP: Who was that?
DM: Al Gore.
DP: What did he have, or what did Bush not have?
DM: I believe in the Democratic party, and their philosophy and what they stand for -- for the poor people.
DP: What book are you reading now?
DM: "Think Like A Millionaire."
DP: And what is it that you've learned that you didn't know about thinking like a millionaire?
DM: That most of the people who are rich, they have a tendency to just live a simple life, and especially those in America. ... Those who have worked very hard don't have a tendency to buy so many fancy cars, and all they're thinking about is ... increasing their wealth instead of building big castles and driving Rolls-Royces and all that. They don't do those things. Most of the millionaires in America [are] simple people, like Bill Gates.
DP: What's the biggest gift you ever bought for yourself, something you really splurged on?
DM: I would say my Piaget watch. I love it so much. Only 300 of them were made and only 29 were sold in the U.S. -- and I wear one of them.
DP: And what's it cost?
DM: [laughs] Eighty-five thousand dollars.
DP: You can't even say that with a straight face.
DM: I know! I never thought I would buy a watch that expensive, because a watch is a watch! You see the time on it. But it just caught my mind, and I went after it.
DP: Who were your heroes?
DM: My heroes always are mostly my parents -- my father especially, and my mom, who's passed on already. My dad is a very strong man, and by him being educated, and a principal and school superintendent over 37 years, he plays such a big role in my life. And for me to understand about life, and a lot of things that go on in life, he pushed me to be where I am today.
DP: How about some other heroes outside of your family?
DM: Patrick Ewing, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X.
DP: Growing up, did you understand who Martin Luther King was and what he meant to your race?
DP: Who taught you that?
DM: We learned that in high school.
DP: Could you understand what it was like to be black in the United States back in the '60s?
DM: I think by living in Africa, it was easy for us to understand what was going on not far away from home. That was happening in South Africa with Nelson Mandela, so it was really easy for us to just pick it up from there.
DP: Do you think it was tougher growing up in Africa under white rule, or growing up in America in the '60s as a black person?
DM: I think it was tougher growing up in Africa in a white world, because this was home for us, then they came to rule us over years, and took over our world ... and when we tried to fight back, it was just too late.
DP: You didn't mention Nelson Mandela as one of your heroes.
DM: Oh, Mandela is still one of my heroes, you know, for the fact that he's the man who spent 27 years in jail to fight for the struggle of his people. As a matter of fact, when he came out of jail, I took the NBA people and a couple of coaches and the players there to meet with Mandela right away when he came out of prison, and it was such a big thing.
DP: Is there anybody here in the United States that would be parallel to what Mandela did or what he means?
DM: I think it would be Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, and also President John Kennedy.
DP: Was it hard for you not to be angry at whites when you came to the United States?
DM: Not really, not really. Maybe because, when I was born, the independence had happened already and I didn't really have a chance to live in the middle of that struggle, so the country was already ruled by its own people.
DP: But did you come over here with preconceived ideas of what white people were like?
DM: I tell some of my friends, even my African-American friends, that the approach to the relationship [between] the races here in America, maybe it's different compared to mine, because I'm a foreigner -- so I think that you don't see that much racism when you're a foreigner here in this country. Because you're just trying to adjust in a country ... [but] it's not like you're trying to integrate to their society, understand their society. And you might face a little bit of problem, but you won't face as much as they are facing with each other.
DP: You speak several languages. ... Have you ever used any of the languages to address a referee? If you didn't agree with a call, have you ever used one of your foreign languages?
DM: No [laughs]. It happened a couple of times where the referee will come to me, asking me, "Were you speaking to me or were you speaking to yourself in other languages?" But I usually just speak in English when I'm on the basketball court. For some reason, my mind never even tried to cross any other language when I'm playing basketball.
DP: But you never yelled at a referee in an African dialect?
DM: No [laughs].
DP: But you've thought about it.
DM: No ... maybe because when I picked up the game, English was the language spoken.
DP: Favorite celebrity you've met.
DM: Bill Russell.
DP: And did you get a chance to sit down and talk to him?
DM: Yes, as a matter of fact, he's really the one who kind of prepared me mentally when I was coming to the game by taking me to the side, and he made me understand about the game of basketball -- that the NBA was the place where I have to go with a goal in mind ... He came to me just a couple of weeks after the draft, and he spent, like, seven days with me in Washington, just talking to me about the game.
DP: Did John Thompson's relationship with Bill Russell help set up that meeting?
DM: Yes, sir.
DP: Did you have any idea what John Thompson was like as a player? Did he tell you stories about how good he was?
DM: So many stories that I can't even remember. All of them were just funny, and we usually laughed about it. He told us so many stories, and I think that was his approach to his players, the way he was coaching us. We would go to the gym, and instead of having three or four hours of practice, maybe he will spend the three hours just talking to us, and another hour for practicing hard.
DP: Well, what's the story you remember that maybe made you laugh a little bit?
DM: He tell us that he really didn't have to do so much as a player because he had such good guys who took care of him and who did most of the work. But for him coming to the game, it was just to come to contribute, and his contribution was very big because if he didn't try to help, he was not going to be on the team. ... Two years he played for the Celtics and won a championship. ... But he was a great player for the fact that for three to five minutes, he was coming in for Bill Russell -- he was doing something to help the team, and that's something he asked his players that, when I put you into the game, don't just realize how long you're going to be there, just go there and do the best you can.
DP: Dirtiest player in the league.
DM: The dirtiest player in the league today or in the history?
DP: How about today, and then, if you have one in history, you can bring him up, too.
DM: I think, in the past, we have to consider Dennis Rodman as being the dirtiest player. But as Rodman's gone, I don't know really who is the dirtiest player right now.
DP: Do you think you're up there on some people's lists?
DM: [laughter] I really don't know.
DP: Oh, you know!
DM: I'm not dirty, I just play.
DP: Should they have banned the finger-waving?
DM: I don't think they should, but it was the league position that finger-waving should be gone. I think it was fun; it was more interesting. Now, everywhere I go, even when I travel to Europe and Asia and Africa, everyone, when they come to me, they always give me a finger wave, and that brings more appreciation to my game.
DP: Do your kids do it?
DM: My kids do it. Now I got a couple of guys in the league trying to do that to me. I don't know, but that's the only way they will remember me, even if I walk away from the game today.
DP: Best NBA road city.
DM: I will go with Miami. It's always warm. You don't have to worry about wearing a coat or wearing a hat. It's just warm, and you can just walk with the shorts on and go straight to the beach, and go to look at the ocean and refresh yourself and your mind and your body.
DP: Who would you pay to see play basketball?
DM: Who would I pay?
DP: Yeah, who would you want to see play bad enough that you would pay to see them play?
DM: I think I just love the game, period...
DP: There has to be somebody that you say, you know what? That's a special player, and I'd pay to see him.
DM: I would love to pay to watch myself, to watch Michael Jordan. There's just so many players out there that I admire in the NBA.
DP: Wait a minute -- you would pay to see you play?
DM: Yes [laughter] -- because I love myself so much.
DP: Have you ever taken a 3-point shot?
DM: I'm 0-for-my-career. I took one when I was with Denver ... and there was nothing left to lose. I can't even remember if it touched the rim or not. [Mutombo has taken two 3-pointers in his career, one in 1994 in a 12-point loss to Milwaukee and one in '96 in a nine-point loss to Atlanta.]
DP: So that's not something you practice on a daily basis.
DP: When's the last time you spoke with Alonzo?
DM: [Recently] ... and I'm planning to speak to him some time [soon] again.
DP: And do you find that he cheers you up?
DM: As a matter of fact, he cheers me up, because I was trying to feel sorry for him, and he asked me to not feel sorry for him ... he's just sick, and he's going to be OK. Only God knows what will happen to him. And Alonzo told me to just continue to pray for him instead of being worried about him.
DP: Would you ever want to try to win a Nobel Peace Prize -- I mean, with what you want to give back to your people, to the world?
DM: No, it hasn't crossed my mind.
DP: But is that important?
DM: I think my point is, if I can accomplish as much as I can with what God gives to me ... that's fine. But winning something, an award, it's a great thing, but it hasn't crossed my mind.
DP: Have you ever heard a funny tall joke?
DM: People don't tell tall jokes to me now. But one that used to make me mad growing up was when they called me The Giraffe [laughter]. Now, I just smile at anything that people say about me.
DP: You seem to have a great disposition.
DM: There are people out there dying every day, so when you wake up, you just have to thank the Man Upstairs for another day on this planet. There's not much else we can ask for.