Everyone will agree that the great decade of expansion of the NBA around the world and, above all, in our country, was the 1990s. From the absolute secrecy of the deferred, live matches were passed, the finals broadcast from the fields themselves and the social phenomenon that the Andrés Montes-Antoni Daimiel couple represented. Yes, of course, from that growth the current monster was built, with the mass arrival of Spanish players throughout the 2000s, but none of this would have been possible without that NBA of Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Hakeem Olajuwon, Charles Barkley, Karl Malone, Tim Duncan and company.
And who is one of the iconic figures of that decade, one of those players who defined his era? Dikembe Mutombo. The image of Dikembe Mutombo holding the ball after eliminating the Seattle Supersonics in the 1994 playoffs and, above all, the image of Dikembe Mutombo shaking his finger every time he blocked an opponent’s shot. Something that happened quite often, on the other hand: He spent his first seven seasons as a professional averaging more than three blocks per game.
Mutombo was a child of his time: from the outset, he embodied the African exuberance that was supposed to be the future of basketball and has not fully materialized, apart from singular figures such as Giannis Antetokoumnpo. Besides, the Zairian was the defender par excellence in a decade that was defined by defense. It’s easy to enumerate the names of the enormous offensive talents of the nineties, both those who had already debuted the previous decade and those who flourished the following decade; Now, if something stands out during those years, something that the Pistons already started in 1989 and that the NBA would fight for years to eradicate, it was a sense of defense that bordered on violence.
Those were the years of the twilight Pistons of Chuck Daly, of the endless arms of Jordan, Pippen, Grant and Rodman, of the Knicks of Starks, Mason, Oakley and Riley… of Mike Fratello’s ninjas in Atlanta and Cleveland, from an Eastern Conference, above all, absolutely wild, to fight by day, benches wanting to jump on the track to fan the slightest spark. The blackboards were smoking and the markers moved in the seventy or eighty points without any problem, nothing to do with the exhibitions of today.
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Well, in that wild context, Dikembe Mutombo was named the league’s best defender up to four times. Although he only averaged more than 14 points per game once in his entire career (16.6 during his rookie season), he was elected to the All-Star eight times. Up to that point it was clear to everyone that in that NBA the defense won games and decided titles. Only twice did he reach the NBA finals. The first, in 2001, well into the next decade, was a kind of turning point in his career, with Allen Iverson’s Sixers.
That Mutombo was still another matter, although its importance remained outside the statistical splendor. He was chosen in the second best quintet in the NBA, renewed his title of best defender of the year and with him the Sixers put Shaquille O’Neal’s Lakers in Chinese. People always talk about those Iverson finals as if the guy played alone, but no, there was someone watching his back and not in any way.
The second was in 2003, with the Nets. Two years had passed, but Mutombo was no longer the same. Not even in a team markedly inferior to the Spurs did he manage to play with minimal regularity. From there, the decline: a year in the Knicks that, of course, went wrong, and his last five, until 42, with the Houston Rockets, where he gave Yao Ming a few minutes of rest and little else. That was another NBA entirely: that of Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and the choral basketball of the Spurs. Nothing to defend with your hand, nothing to jump onto the track for a fight.
The news of his illnessa brain tumor under medical treatment– has impacted an entire generation without the following ones being able to fully understand it. Mutombo was part of that league that made us fall in love with him. If you explain today to a fan of the Warriors or any of those teams that average 110-115 points per game, that one of the banners of the NBA was a guy who often did not reach ten, you can only respond with amazement. That is the merit of Mutombo, a man who will go down in the history of this sport for being as he is and not as the fans wanted him to be. All the luck in recovering him.
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