The finger wag. As recognizable and as loved as any NBA signature moment. It’s meme-worthy. It’s an official part of NBA historical lore. Seriously, when was the last time you heard anyone say, “Man, I really hate it when Mutombo does that stupid finger wag?” If you really did hear someone say it, it’s because their favorite team was likely getting swatted out of the gym.
The world-famous wag didn’t get its start in H-town. Far from it, actually. But Rockets fans were lucky enough to have Dikembe Mutombo for five seasons from 2005-2009, and there were finger wags galore. 293 of them to be precise.
Mutombo arrived in Houston via a trade with the Chicago Bulls before the start of the 2004-2005 season, with the Rockets sending Adrian Griffin, Eric Piatkowski, and Mike Wilks in return. He immediately became the ideal backup and mentor for Yao Ming, who was beginning to round into form as a major NBA force, and he played in 80 games that first season.
Mutombo never played a lot of minutes with the Rockets, averaging just 15.6 per game during his Houston career, but he was effective in the time that he played, particularly as still one of the game’s best post defenders and rim protectors. He averaged 5.4 boards and 1.1 blocks with the Rockets, which turn into 12.4 rebounds and 2.5 blocks on a per-36 basis. He also finished his Rockets career with a +2.5 defensive plus-minus, and impressive number for a player his age.
An age, by the way, which was always the topic of rumor in NBA circles. Mutombo was 43 when he finally retired from the NBA, but many people spoke of inaccurate or missing altogether birth information from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and that Deke was several years older than the official information reported. Whether it was actually true or not matters none; it simply added to the Mutombo mystique.
Anyway, Mutombo had some huge moments for the Rockets. He became the oldest player in NBA history to grab 20 or more rebounds at age 40 (we think), and he reached second all-time in NBA blocked shots, trailing just Hakeem Olajuwon.
Whenever Yao went down with an injury — which was often — Mutombo’s veteran presence was there to stabilize the defense and the roster. In the 2005-2006 season, Deke had a 10-game stretch with Yao out in which he averaged 11.2 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. In 2006-2007, during an 11-game stretch, Mutombo turned back the hands of time by averaging 13.8 boards and 2 blocks over an 11-game stretch.
But perhaps his greatest moment as a Rocket came during the 2007-2008 season, when Yao went down in the midst of a 12-game winning streak. Mutombo, who had only played in six of the previous 41 games, stepped in once again and helped Houston extend that win-streak to the now-famous 22 games.
During that 10-game stretch, Mutombo averaged 6.6 boards and 2.3 blocked shots in sparking the Rockets’ D and reinstituting the finger wag into the every day NBA lexicon. In fact, it came back to life for an entire generation of NBA fans who may not have had the chance to see Mutombo patrolling the paint in his prime.
Mutombo, who had to be talked out of retirement the following season, left us with the awkward image of him writhing around in pain after blowing out his knee in the 2009 first-round series against the Portland Trail Blazers, but Deke’s legacy was secure.
Combine the old man’s heroics over his five seasons in H-town with his immense humanitarian efforts, including building a hospital in his native Congo, acting as a spokesman for CARE, along with winning multiple humanitarian and citizenship awards, and it’s easy to see why Mutombo was (and still is) a beloved figure in Rockets history.