Mutombo suits his new team

This article was originally published in the Daily News on February 24, 2001.

He had needed nearly 11 hours Thursday to reach Philadelphia from Los Angeles. He squeezed in 3 hours of sleep, took a physical yesterday morning, conducted a news conference at the First Union Center, did a TV interview, then finally, mercifully, settled into a seat on a private plane that took him to Pontiac, Mich., a brief limousine ride from the 76ers' hotel headquarters.

But time was suddenly of the essence. It was 4:45 in the afternoon, and Dikembe Mutombo - the Sixers' new center - had a decision: go directly to the Palace of Auburn Hills for the 8 o'clock game or make a pit stop at the hotel. For him, really, there was no decision.

"I have to press my suit," Mutombo said.

One more wrinkle, so to speak, as we learn about the 7-2 NBA rebounding leader, the X-factor added to a 41-14 team Thursday in a trade that sent Theo Ratliff, the league's leader in blocked shots, and Toni Kukoc to the Atlanta Hawks.

The suit turned out to be a spiffy chocolate-brown cashmere, as sweet as Mutombo's debut with his new team. When general manager Billy King told coach Larry Brown 70 minutes before last night's game that Mutombo had been cleared to play, Brown said, "Mazel tov," and watched his latest acquisition pile up 17 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks in 36 minutes of what became a relatively easy, 99-78 victory over the Detroit Pistons.

"I love to dress up for the games," Mutombo said, glancing admiringly at the suit of choice hanging in his locker-room cubicle. "I believe you should wear a suit. If you're coming to work, why shouldn't you look good? John Thompson made it mandatory when I was at Georgetown, but even when I went to some [pro] teams that didn't, I did it anyway. "

Brown was ecstatic Mutombo was willing - eager - to join the team last night even if he wasn't eligible. But once Ratliff became the last principal in the trade to pass his physical, Brown asked the new man if he wanted to participate.

"They told me at 4:30 to forget about it, then [Brown] asked if I wanted to play," Mutombo said. "I said, 'Yeah. ' I would not say no, not with a large crowd [22,076, a sellout] coming to see Mutombo play for the first time. "

The crowd got a lethal dose of Allen Iverson, too. The league's scoring leader put up 43 points, the 13th time this season he has reached 40 or more, and matched his career high with 10 rebounds.

"I couldn't believe how fast is that kid," Mutombo said. "A couple teammates said he wasn't even playing at his best. As the games go by, I'll get more rebounds, we'll score more baskets easily. "

Mutombo's game has no flair, no flash. He simply sets multiple screens on many possessions, he rolls to the basket when opportunities present themselves, he searches for tip-ins, follow-ups and rebounds. He guards the paint as if it were his domain, which - as a four-time member of the league's All-Defense team - it is.

"He rebounded, defended like he's done his whole career," Brown said. "Theo gave us a lot of that, but this is what we were hoping would happen. [Mutombo] is bigger. If Theo wasn't hurt, we'd be continuing on. Theo has always been an athletic, running big forward we had to play at center. This guy is just a big center, playing his natural position. "

Ratliff is out at least a few more weeks recovering from right wrist surgery. Mutombo is in the paint, doing what he has done for nearly 10 seasons, first with Denver, then with the Hawks. He had nine points and seven rebounds in the first half, then went to Brown and said: "I'll do better the second half. I've got to get my wind. "

Brown just chuckled.

Mutombo said that, as he regains his conditioning, he hopes to provide "15 to 20 rebounds a night. "

"That's a lot," he said. "You can't buy that. "

He also said it's not as if he has to do things other than what he has done throughout his career.

"Just rebound and block shots, and let the rest take care of itself," he said.

Brown and King talked internally for months about Mutombo, but weren't sure how to acquire him. When Mutombo swept 22 rebounds in the East's All-Star Game victory Feb. 11, their interest climbed. When it became clear Ratliff would be out for an extended period, the interest peaked. In the three days leading up to Thursday's 6 p.m. trade deadline, they moved swiftly and aggressively. Ratliff, Kukoc, Nazr Mohammed and Pepe Sanchez were exchanged for Mutombo and Roshown McLeod.

"[The All-Star Game] was a pretty incredible performance," said Brown, the East's coach. "I had always admired him from afar, how unselfishly he played, how difficult he was to play against. That [performance] left us all kind of impressed. "

The experience left Mutombo equally impressed. With Miami's Alonzo Mourning out with a kidney disease and Ratliff nursing his bad wrist, commissioner David Stern had added Toronto's Antonio Davis to the roster. Brown, who coached Davis with Indiana, made him the starter, but started Mutombo in the second half.

"I was surprised," Mutombo recalled. "I said, 'Antonio? ' He said. 'You go. ' "

That's what Brown says now.

"He did more than I expected," Iverson said. "He told me [early] that he wasn't playing. I said, 'What are you here for? ' He changed the whole game. Guys usually get easy baskets against us, but there was none of that. "

Somebody asked whether Mutombo is the last piece to the Sixers puzzle.

"He has to be," Iverson replied. "The trading deadline is over. If he's not the piece we need, we won't win the championship. Let's go ahead, take what we've got and work with it."