I never dreamed of seeing my number go up into the rafters of an NBA arena. I’ve worn many uniforms in this league, but I’m so honored to have my jersey retired here in Atlanta, the city I now call home.
Home is not a word I say lightly.
When I came to America as a student, I had nothing. Finding a home away from home was the most important thing to me — even more important than basketball. From the first day I arrived, there were so many people who went out of their way to make me feel at home. When I landed at Dulles Airport in 1987, three students were waiting to greet me in French because I didn’t know any English. At that moment, I felt like I was not lost in the middle of the forest. I will never forget them and I even stay in touch with some of them today.
And Coach John Thompson believed in me even when nobody knew who I was.
Before I arrived to Georgetown, the media was saying, “Who’s this … Mutamby guy?”
No one could pronounce my name: Dikembe Mutombo Mpolondo Mukamba Jean-Jacques Wamutombo.
So Coach Thompson held a press conference. No one had seen me play basketball. No one had seen me at all. Coach Thompson wanted to have some fun.
“We have a new recruit from Africa,” he said. “Wait until you see him. He’s 5’10”, but believe me, the kid’s going to be very good.”
Everyone’s jaws were on the floor when I walked into practice for the first time. Like I had grown from 5’10” to 7’2” in one week.
Coach Thompson has been a father figure to me ever since. He taught me how to play basketball, but also how to become a man. It was Georgetown where I learned a love for the game, but it was also the Georgetown experience that prepared me for life after the game. Coach Thompson cared about who we were as students and people. His philosophy was, “The ball will stop bouncing one day. You can be as great as you can be on the basketball court, but one day it will stop. Then what will you do?”
Under Coach Thompson’s leadership, you couldn’t be a basketball player unless you cared about school, too. I learned that lesson in my sophomore year. I only missed one day of class at Georgetown. But even one day was a mistake. I woke up that day with a toothache and decided to skip all of my classes. I went straight to the dentist and I forgot to call the basketball office to let them know. When I showed up to practice that afternoon, there was a piece of paper in my locker: It was a one-way plane ticket back to Congo. This was not a fake ticket. Coach Thompson really bought a one-way ticket with my name on it.
Today, he will laugh about it. But it was not funny to me that day. I started to cry at my locker. I had already seen two friends get kicked out of school for academic reasons. I was not going to be the third. Coach Thompson liked to play jokes, but he was serious underneath.
I never missed another class again.
Today, the ball has stopped bouncing, but I am proud to be continuing in a new career after basketball, with my foundation and as the NBA’s global ambassador.
Tuesday night is a special moment for me. I am proud to be considered one of the best shot-blockers in NBA history. But I could not have done this alone. I learned from so many great teammates and coaches.
Patrick Ewing is a brother to me today. But back at Georgetown, he was tough on me. He was already an NBA star, and he would come back to campus during the summer to help coach our team. He showed me what it would take to get to the next level.
I haven’t seen many people put in as many hours in the gym as Patrick Ewing did. Do you remember how much Patrick would sweat during a game? He would sweat twice as much in practice. Patrick was always sweating. It’s because he worked so hard — in practice or in a game, it didn’t matter.
In the summers, Patrick would make us wake up really early in the morning to work out. We were college students, so we hated waking up early. But Patrick would scream at us if we showed up late. He’d call us all kinds of names — I cannot even repeat them. He tried to make us work out seven days a week.
I would be like, “Patrick, it’s Sunday. I’ve got to go to church … ”
We would be in the weight room all morning, then we had lunch, and Patrick made us come back for an afternoon basketball workout. He had us training for 6-7 hours a day.
I look back and ask myself, Mannn, how did I go through all of that? But how could you say no to the guy who was at the top of the game, on top of the league? How could you say no to one of the most successful centers in the NBA? I kept pushing because I wanted to be like him. Today, I am grateful for it.
Alonzo Mourning was another role model. He was an All-American, and I was just “the new guy,” but he still treated me with respect. He had incredible work ethic. Alonzo pushed me to the limit every day in practice. Coach Thompson would pull Zo aside in practice and say, “Go after him!” That’s how I got tougher. Both of us made each other greater. Today, we’re both sitting in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and it’s incredible to think back to those days.
Hakeem Olajuwon was my role model before I met him. Just reading about him as a dominant African player in the NBA and knowing he once walked the same path as I did was really inspiring. He opened the door for me and for a lot of foreign players. Hakeem would say, “It’s not about where you come from, but where you want to be tomorrow.” I would say to myself, Why not me? Why can I not do it, too?
I learned the most from Hakeem about defense. Everyone knows about his offensive skills, but his shot-blocking was the most impressive thing to me. If there is an art to shot-blocking, Hakeem had it down. He showed that it is not about height or jumping ability. It is timing. Hakeem could collide with the offensive player in the air at the perfect moment without fouling. He was not 7’2” or 7’3”, but he had the ability to block shots that no one else could.
Last summer, it was a dream come true to play in the NBA Africa Game with Hakeem.
Steve Smith was one of best teammates I’ve ever had and he is still one of my best friends. We have supported each other since day one. We were both drafted on the same day — I went fourth and he went fifth. We got married on the same day and we even had our honeymoons in the same place. Our wives’ birthdays are one day apart. We even live on the same street in Atlanta and our kids are friends. He is truly like a brother to me.
And no one could forget the legend, Lenny Wilkens. I’m very grateful to him. Lenny was a friend, teammate, coach and a father figure, all in one. That’s why so many guys played for Lenny for so many years. He helped make me better and make my career longer.
Everywhere I go, people wag their finger at me. I wag my finger back. When I see people wagging their fingers at me, it feels like cheering.
No, no, no.
They wag. I wag back. I love it.
No, no, no.
Whenever I blocked someone and wag my finger, it was never personal. At first, I did it so people would remember me. I wanted everyone to know who controlled the paint. I wanted people to know that I showed up every day and said, “No one is coming in here.”
No, no, no.
On Tuesday night, I want to hear these three words. And I will be smiling from ear to ear.
I’m so honored to join only four other Hawks jerseys in the rafters in Atlanta. I’m honored by the support of the Hawks organization, especially Stan Kasten and Peter Babcock, over the years. To all the people who made me feel at home here and in every city I’ve played in, thank you. This is my home in Atlanta. The NBA is my home. But I’m not going anywhere. I look forward to continuing my work as the game’s global ambassador.
And if you see me out on the street some time, I hope you will greet me.
You already know what to do.