Dikembe Mutombo doesn’t remember the first time he wagged his right index finger at an opponent after blocking their shot. What he does know is that he lost a lot of money with his signature gesture over the years.
“I lose thousands and thousands of dollars,” Mutombo said. “I was fined $10,000, $5,000, $2,000 for waving my finger. It’s funny to laugh about it today. But back then, it was a lot of money.”
The Denver Nuggets’ legendary center returned to the Pepsi Center on Saturday night to see his jersey retired. Mutombo, alongside his wife and children, watched as his No. 55 was lifted to the rafters. Along the way, he got a $50,000 check from owner Josh Kroenke to go toward his humanitarian work in Africa, an oil painting depicting the image of him on the floor cradling the basketball after Denver’s upset over Seattle in the 1994 playoffs and a lot of laughs.
Mutombo became the fifth Nuggets player to have his jersey retired. He’s now a part of the same club as Denver greats Byron Beck, Alex English, Dan Issel and David Thompson. Former coach Doug Moe is also recognized in the rafters.
The Nuggets took Mutombo fourth overall in the 1991 NBA Draft, and he spent the first five years of his career with the team. Mutombo’s finest moment in Denver, he said, was the 1994 playoff series against the Seattle SuperSonics. The No. 8-seed Nuggets went down 2-0, but came back to upset the top-seeded Sonics in the five-game series.
It was the first time an eight seed had ever bested a one seed in the NBA Playoffs. The lasting image of the series was of Mutombo, who blocked 31 shots in five games, lying on the floor, holding the basketball close and crying tears of joy as the upset became official.
Mutombo’s NBA career lasted 18 seasons. He retired in 2009 as an eight-time All-Star, a four-time Defensive Player of the Year, and with 11,729 points, 12,359 rebounds and an untold amount of finger wags.
“I think it’s (the finger wag) great,” said Nuggets coach Mike Malone, who was an assistant coach with the 2003-04 Knicks when Mutombo played for the team. “If you have one thing you do really well, you might as well autograph and signature it with your own little swag. So yeah, I’m a big fan of it. I think they started banning it because of taunting and all that. But he’s a great guy. When I’m feeling down, I sing “The Dikembe Mutombo song” that gets me up. If you haven’t heard it, Google it.”
These days, Mutombo is busy running his foundation, which focuses on improving the health, education and quality of life for the people of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where Mutombo is from. In 2007, Mutombo helped build a hospital in the country. Right now, his biggest project is providing cervical caner screenings for women. Mutombo said that 20 million Congolese women will die in the next 10 years if they don’t get screened.
“Can you imagine with that $50,000 (from Kroenke), how many women — aunties, grandmas and cousins — will be taken care of at the Mutombo hospital?” he said.
As his jersey was finally raised at halftime of Denver’s 115-113 overtime loss to the Trail Blazers, Mutombo stood on the Pepsi Center hardwood by his wife and children in one of the corners.
Mutombo said he was fighting back tears while it was happening. If that was the case, he did a good job. Because as it went up, Mutombo craned his neck upwards with it and showed off that big, toothy smile — the same one he wore after so many blocked shots and big wins in Denver.