Sixers center named top defender

This article was published in the Daily News on April 23, 2001.

For the first 55 games this season, the 76ers appeared to have the NBA's leading Defensive Player of the Year candidate. For the final 27 games, they did, too. Who knew it would be a different player?

But that was the end result of a Feb. 22 trade in which the Sixers sent Theo Ratliff, Toni Kukoc, Nazr Mohammed and the since-returned Pepe Sanchez to the Atlanta Hawks for Dikembe Mutombo and Roshown McLeod.

When the deal was struck, Ratliff - in the midst of his finest season and recovering from surgery on his right wrist - was leading the league in blocks. When the season ended, Mutombo had his second straight rebounding title, led the league in total rebounds for the fourth time in 10 seasons and cracked 1,000 rebounds for the fourth time.

Mutombo's contributions with the Hawks and Sixers brought him 48 of a possible 123 votes from a panel of sports writers and broadcasters in the United States and Canada, naming him winner of the league's Defensive Player of the Year Award. He has won the award four times, more than any other player.

Mutombo becomes the first Sixer to win the award, and the first player to win it with three different teams. He won in 1994-95 with the Denver Nuggets and 1996-97 and 1997-98 with the Hawks. Minnesota's Kevin Garnett finished second with 26 votes, San Antonio's Tim Duncan was third with 14.

Ratliff, unable to play after the trade, placed seventh. The Sixers' Allen Iverson finished in a four-way tie for 11th place with one vote. Miami's Alonzo Mourning, who won the award the previous two seasons, missed most of this season battling a kidney disease.

"I understand what I've got to do to help this team continue to be successful," Mutombo said. "This organization has a will to win. . .Me being here is just a continuation of what they're trying to accomplish here. They want to be not just a winning team, but a strong team that can play defense.

"Look at the way we played Indiana the first game [of the playoffs]. Even though we got beat by one point, we played great defense. We really played our butt off, [but] we didn't come out with the result we wanted. Hopefully, [tonight] we take care of business and finish the thing up. "

The Sixers dropped the opener of their best-of-five series, 79-78, on Saturday, and host Game 2 tonight. Mutombo swept a playoff career-high 22 rebounds, scored 12 points and recorded five blocks in Game 1. He led the league in rebounding with an average of 13.5 and was fifth in blocks with 2.71. In 26 games with the Sixers, he had four blocks or more 11 times and had a season-high nine against Atlanta on March 9. He is third on the league's all-time shot-blocking list with 2,646.

Arriving at Georgetown in 1987 with virtually no experience in the sport, the 7-2 Mutombo paid attention when then-Hoyas coach John Thompson explained the priorities.

"Coach Thompson told me the first day I played basketball, 'Son, don't look for a shot, just go get the ball when it goes up there,' " Mutombo said. "I was taught that way from the beginning.

"I've been in the league 10 years, been a successful player. I don't believe just offense wins; it's defense that wins. I'm glad to continue being recognized as one of the great defensive players ever to play this game. Hopefully, when I walk off from this game one day, people will remember me that way. "

He referred to the 2000-01 season as "a blessing year for me" despite having missed the first five games of the season with a mild case of malaria.

He also said he has never felt more comfortable with a team than he has since joining the Sixers.

"Everything started like two months ago, when my son was born, just a great day," he said. "A couple days later, I was traded to a great team, to come and play for a great coach [Larry Brown] and a great organization, to be surrounded by great players [like] Allen Iverson and Eric Snow and everybody. It was a blessing. . .Now all I need is a ring and to win a championship. That's what I'm hoping for right now. "

Mutombo will turn 35 on June 25 and knows there are people who think he is older.

"Age really doesn't matter,'' he said. "It just depends how you take care of your body. One of the best examples is my father; he's almost 72 years old and when you look at him, he looks like he's 30 years old, because he takes care of himself. He knows what to put in his body, what he puts in his stomach. . .When you take care of yourself, you can do whatever you want to do any time in your lifetime."