How Dikembe Mutombo’s Finger Changed The NBA

Since May 2013, I've been working on a story about Dikembe Mutombo's finger wag (no, no, no!) and how it turned him into an unlikely NBA superstar and a global icon. I had the privilege of chatting with Mutombo, Patrick Ewing, Shawn Kemp, Lenny Wilkens, Steve Smith, Bismack Bioymbo, and some of his former teammates at Georgetown. And it's finally published with Buzzfeed. An except is below:


Dikembe Mutombo doesn’t remember the first time he wagged his finger in a basketball game, but he does remember why. In 1992, the 7-foot-2-inch rookie center was an NBA All-Star, but he played on a bad team, the Nuggets, in a midsize city, Denver. And he was from a country, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), that most Americans can’t place on a map. Sneaker companies were dishing out multimillion-dollar endorsement deals to the league’s best and best-known players, and Mutombo knew he needed to establish a marketable trademark move to accompany the prodigious blocked shots for which he was already making a name.

“Back then, I would shake my head when I used to block shots,” Mutombo, now 47, recalls at his Atlanta foundation’s headquarters, where he spends much of his time these days. “I really didn’t have a signature…I had to come up with something [for when] I was dominating a game.”

Mutombo, wearing a light blue dress shirt with sleeves two inches too short, sinks into his black leather office chair, extends his long legs the width of his wooden desk, and sends a text to his wife, Rose. Inside the bright green-and-yellow office, reminders of Mutombo’s career are scattered alongside photographs from trips to Africa. Several boxes of new high-tops rest on a spare table, alongside a Mutombo-licensed basketball. In front of his monitor sits a mouse pad prominently displaying his face, which, much to Mutombo’s surprise, was — is — still very much everywhere.

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