‘Man Cannot Fly in the House of Mutombo’

The iconic former NBA center, whose trademark finger wag became a basketball fixture, was inducted into the Hall of Fame on Friday.

Richard Carson / Reuters

More than his All-Star appearances, scattered playoff glories, or his myriad defensive records, Dikembe Mutombo, who was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday, will known—nay, cherished—for his finger wag.

Thousands of times in his professional career, the 7-foot-2, Kinshasa-born center would follow the act of blocking a shot with the patented gesture of rejection:

In August, before his official enshrinement into the Hall of Fame, Mutombo was asked about the story behind the taunt. In a deep, gravelly voice that perfectly befits someone who has embarrassed everyone from Shaquille O’Neal to Michael Jordan by tossing their ill-thought shots away from the rim, he explained that the finger wag was to “let them know that the man cannot fly in the house of Mutombo.” (Mutombo, it should be known, earned bachelor’s degrees in both diplomacy and linguistics while playing hoops at Georgetown University.)

Both O’Neal and Jordan did eventually scale Mt. Mutumbo and returned the gesture; nevertheless, Mutombo is still regarded as one of the best defensive players of his generation for his ability to protect the rim. Defensive prowess is one thing, but the development of the finger wag was a genius stroke that turned him into a psychological force.

“Once he started to wag that finger, guys would get caught up and really try to challenge him,” said the former NBA All-Star forward Shawn Kemp. “He was trying to get them to play his own game, which was [getting them to try] to attack him to make it easier for him to block shots.” According to Mutombo, Kemp was his favorite player to block.

The finger wag also transformed him into a highly marketable player. For someone who played for a number of teams and whose offensive skills were merely adequate, Mutombo scored shoe deals and endorsements during and after his career and also managed to enter the mainstream. Consider that in 2013, years after his retirement at 42, Geico chose Mutombo to star in an ad where he would indiscriminately block objects and perform the finger wag.

It was funny and hammy. Of course, one uncelebrated aspect of Mutombo’s infamous gesture was its potential for comedy. Here’s one stellar example:

The NBA didn’t find it very funny. When Mutombo started collecting technical fouls and fines for taunting players whom he had rejected, he had the brilliant idea to shift his focus from wagging at the player to wagging at the fans in the stands. Crowds, well at least home crowds, loved it.

                                             President Obama performs the finger wag at Mutombo in 2010.  (Jonathan Ernst / Reuters)      

If there’s anything that could eclipse the eternal association of Mutombo with the finger wag, it could be his humanitarian efforts. Writing in The Atlantic in 2012, Armin Rosen detailed some of Mutombo’s charity work including the building of a major hospital in his hometown in Congo as well as partnerships with the Gates and Clinton Foundations. As James Fallows noted, Mutombo was also honored by George W. Bush, who seated him next to his wife Laura at the 2007 State of the Union. That time, Mutombo just clapped.