Some things are undeniably Houston.
Earl Campbell and Warren Moon. Jeff Bagwell, Craig Biggio and Nolan Ryan. The Astrodome. Hakeem Olajuwon and this website's namesake. The Beard. The Geto Boys. Big George Foreman. The Space Center. Goode Company BBQ. All are quintessentially H-Town.
But one soon-to-be Basketball Hall of Famer repped the H in his later years with just as much pride and gusto as anyone or anything on that list: Dikembe Mutombo.
Mutombo first came to the Rockets in the '04-'05 season as the backup to budding superstar center Yao Ming. Deke only started two games behind a still-healthy Yao, but played in 80, averaging 4.0 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.3 blocked shots in just 15 minutes per game and brought some much-needed veteran savvy and size to the squad. He combined with Yao to form as formidable and large (Yao is 7'6", Deke is 7'2") a one-two punch at center as there was in the league.
The Rockets lost in the first round of the playoffs to Dallas, but having Mutombo around to mentor and back up Yao would pay dividends moving forward.
Despite a disappointing '05-'06 campaign that saw the Rockets battle a plethora of injuries — Yao, Tracy McGrady and Mutombo himself all missed significant time — and stumble to a 34-48 record and a trip to the lottery, Mutombo returned the following season to much brighter days.
He played a key role on the '06-'07 Rockets squad, holding down the paint, grabbing boards and wagging fingers galore after Yao went down mid-season in the midst of a would-be MVP run.
The 40-year-old Deek started 33 games in Yao's absence and played in a total of 75, averaging 6.3 rebounds and 1.0 blocks per game and also played classic overall interior defense, achieving his highest defensive win share total since the '01-'02 season.
Mutombo also set records this season, becoming the oldest player in NBA history to gather more than 20 rebounds in a game when he snagged 22 in a March win over his old Denver Nuggets team.
The Rockets finished 52-30 and lost in the first round to the Utah Jazz with Yao on the court. But it was Mutombo's play in Yao's absence that helped keep the Rockets afloat that season and injected an otherwise light-on-talent squad (Rafer Alston and Luther Head anyone?) with the leadership and infectious enthusiasm to rally around T-Mac and still win 50-plus games despite Yao's injury.
Just when everyone felt the old man was due to come crashing hard back to earth, the ageless wonder went out and had his finest season as Rocket in '07-'08.
In an all-too-familiar refrain, Yao once again went down with an injury and was replaced in the starting lineup by Mutombo, who helped lead the short-handed Rockets onward from what was at first an impressive 12-game win streak, onto a wild and incredible 22-game one.
Deke's season was filled with more unforgettable moments, including passing Kareem Abdul-Jabbar for second on the all-time blocks list with a 5-block performance against the Lakers, averaging double-digit rebounds as a starter in Yao's absence (Chuck Hayes also started some games with Mutombo coming off the bench) and inspiring one of the most unforgettable moments of all among his teammates, the Mutombo impersonation contest:
It was also just about this time that questions arose and rumors abound about Mutombo's actual birthdate, and there was real speculation in some circles that the now 41-year old Mutombo was even older than he was letting on, perhaps even as old as 45, and the Legend of Mutombo jovially grew to even greater heights.
The Rockets finished 55-27 and despite another first round loss to Utah, the win streak and Mutombo's play and personality still made the season a memorable and enjoyable one.
The '08-'09 season, however, finally saw the unceremonious end to Mutombo's illustrious career, as he collapsed in a heap in Game 2 of a first round playoff series with Portland. He badly tore ligaments in his knee, and he announced his retirement two days later.
Mutombo's limited overall minutes kept his per game averages with Rockets somewhat modest, but his numbers on a per 36-minute basis were still off the charts for a 40+ year-old-man.
Mutombo finished his 5-year-career with the Rockets with per 36 averages of 7.4 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocked shots, a multitude of amazing moments and a rightful place in one of the most impressive team lineages of big men that ever existed. Elvin Hayes, Moses Malone, Ralph Sampson, Hakeem Olajuwon, Yao Ming and Dikembe Mutombo.
In addition to his numerous playing accolades, Mutombo is also a three-time honorary Doctorate recipient and a celebrated humanitarian. The work done through his Mutombo Foundation and with the Special Olympics earned him the Kennedy Citizenship award in 2001 and again in 2009 and he was the winner of a Presidential Service Award in 1999.
A true gentleman, he also speaks nine languages, built a much-needed hospital in the Congo, and serves on the National Constitution Center Board of Trustees.
The City of Houston and Rockets fans everywhere should congratulate an adopted one of our own, Dikembe Mutombo, on his Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame induction today. Despite playing for four other teams before his Houston swan song, Deke will always be a beloved member of the Houston Rockets family.