I mean, it was on a stretcher, he’s going to be fine, but after 18 NBA seasons it was pretty clear that Dikembe Mutombo was not going to simply decide to walk away from the NBA. He would be carried away. He would drive away in one of those little Rascal-brand scooters favored by particularly rascally olds. But he wasn’t going to stop until something in his body decided it was time for him to stop. That finally happened in the Rockets’ game two loss to the Blazers last night, when he suffered a gnarly knee injury and was carried from the court for what he says will be the last time. NBA basketball was an increasingly small part of a life that was coming to be more defined by an amazing global charity portfolio, but while Mutombo certainly won’t vanish from public life, there’s a real aesthetic loss for basketball fans in his disappearance — the guy was just so weird, so interesting and unique and surprising, even leaving aside his basketball work. Richard Justice puts it in perspective in the Houston Chronicle:
He was an amazingly good citizen of the world. He had a charitable heart and devoted countless hours and dollars to the causes he believed in. He’s a role model for every future player.
His 18-year NBA career ended Tuesday night with a gruesome knee injury midway through his 1,297th game. He left the floor on a stretcher after every single teammate had surrounded him on the floor. That gesture spoke volumes about what they thought of him. He’s the funniest, smartest professional athlete you will ever meet.
He has that booming raspy voice, that wide smile and that very loud laugh. When he got excited, you had trouble understanding more than a word or two of what he was saying. When the Rockets were negotiating a contract with him a couple of years ago, they finally gave up trying to do by telephone and flew to Atlanta for a face-to-face meeting.
”Daryl Morey,” he said loudly last summer, ”I won’t play for one dollar again next season.”
”Actually,” Morey told him, “that was closer to $5 million. Not one dollar, but $5 million. Big difference.”
I always kind of thought there was something silly about Mutombo, deep into his NBA dotage, continuing the post-block finger-wag thing. It’s like if K-Rod was still rubbing his belly and doing the two-hand skyward-exult in 12 years, when he’s a set-up guy in Milwaukee and just threw a perfect seventh inning. But in a league that has wrung so much personal expression from its players in the name of protecting its fading brand, the wag — and its author — will be missed.