Born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dikembe Mutombo came to the United States on an academic scholarship to study medicine at Georgetown University. But his career path soon changed after joining the school's basketball team. Mutombo would go on to play in the NBA for 18 years and become one of the league's all-time best defensive players.
Hakeem Olajuwon, for all practical purposes, was the first, and he remains the best. Dikembe Mutombo was the next logical step, arriving in the NBA a basketball generation later (in 1991 to Olajuwon's '84). In between, Manute Bol was a fascinating tale, testing the upper bounds of height (7-foot-7) while bringing smiles to our faces by cracking wise, swatting shots or jacking up three-pointers.
This was a first for me. As I was standing in line at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport preparing to board a flight to Houston to begin reporting a feature on the Rockets for Sports Illustrated, my cell phone began buzzing. It was my brother, Andy, calling to tell me that Rockets center Yao Ming was out for the season. A quick e-mail to the Rockets' PR department confirmed his timely report and I was left to beg the guy at the JetBlue counter to go out in the pouring rain and get my bag before it went on the plane.
The birth certificate from the Democratic Republic of Congo makes him out to be 40-years-old. But his NBA colleagues have long joked that the document must be forged because Dikembe Mutombo is years older than that. The punch line? That comes when Mutombo laughs along: Eyes squinting, cheeks bursting, his laughter fills the room like music in a jazz club, and he looks young enough to be a student at Georgetown all over again.
1. Run, Charles, run: He may or may not try to become governor of Alabama, but Charles Barkley is being drafted for a different kind of run. USA Today is reporting that TNT has proposed that Barkley race 67-year-old referee Dick ("Knick") Bavetta on Feb. 17, the day before the NBA All-Star Game. Barkley has been riding Bavetta on-air for being too old and presumably too slow to get up and down the floor as a ref, challenging him to a match race. Sir Charles has even joked that Bavetta's tombstone will read, "He keeled over while racing the Chuckster." No word yet if Bavetta will accept, but this sounds more interesting than whatever that All-Star weekend "skills" competition is supposed to be.