The highlights of Dikembe Mutombo’s career are well-traveled tales. Clutching a basketball in joy, laying on the court in Seattle after the eighth-seeded Nuggets upset the top-seeded Sonics in the first-round of the 1994 NBA playoffs…. The many finger wags from thousands of blocked shots…. Giving his speech after being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2015.
Mt. Mutombo is right. His impact on the game, on the Nuggets, and in his many humanitarian causes, was as large as scaling a 14er.
The always-jovial seven footer is tops in Nuggets history in blocks (1,486), second in total rebounds (4,811) and defensive rebounds (3,297), and is third in offensive rebounds (1,514). It wasn’t rainbows and butterflies when Mutombo protected the rim – it was all business and many shots sent hurling back in the opposite direction after he’d swatted them away.
But do you know how his tale started? The Nuggets drafted him fourth overall in 1991 out of Georgetown, but it was by no means a lock that he’d land in Denver. The general manger at the time, Bernie Bickerstaff, desperately wanted the skinny shot-blocker, and used a World Series of Poker-sized bluff to ensure Mutombo would be available when the Nuggets’ pick came up.
Charlotte, New Jersey and Sacramento had the top three picks.
“Charlotte, I knew what they were doing,” Bickerstaff said. “They had no interest in (Dikembe). Sacramento, at that point, was trying to get something from us and throw the bluff that they were going to take Mutombo. What we did was tell them we had a deal with New Jersey (at No. 2). Basically we killed the game that Sacramento was trying to play because we told them we could move to two. And New Jersey echoed those sentiments that we were having some discussions. So that basically killed that. But in terms of who we wanted at that time, there was no doubt about that. We wanted the big guy for defensive purposes.”
Sacramento drafted Billy Owens with the third selection. That left Mutombo on the board for the Nuggets. Bickerstaff had his man, and the Nuggets were about to instantly become one of the best defensive teams in the NBA with a player who would become one of the most recognized and loved personalities the league has ever known.
“You talk about (Bill) Russell; I don’t think there’s anybody in his class defensively. But (Mutombo) had this innate intelligence and ability to read offenses,” Bickerstaff said. “And even if you put him on the perimeter, if you got by him, his recovery and his chase down was right on the money because he knew angles. You’d think you had a layup after you got by him, but he was there. … You still have to have that instinct to be able to do that, and that’s what he had, that instinct.”