Andrew Kamenetzky: How aware were you of Dikembe's NBA career as you were growing up in Congo?
DJ Mbenga: I started watching him when I was so young, man. I didn't even know (about) basketball.
AK: Was he just that big of icon in your country, regardless of whether or not you were into basketball?
DM: Actually, I met him when I made the league. I knew about him before. I used to watch him. Like I said, I never liked basketball, but I knew him. Now we're really close.
AK: How difficult was it for you to see his career end with an injury?
DM: It was funny, because I always joke with him. I said, "If you don't want to stop, the basketball is gonna stop yourself." (laughs) But when I saw him fall down, I already knew. When I saw him fall down, I was like, "It's over." I was sad, and I was happy for him. At least he stopped his career on the court, and not in a bad way. Not like he was incapable of playing. He went in and played. He went in and proved (he could still play). For me, he ended so good. Like, beautiful.
AK: What has Dikembe meant to Congo, in terms of representing what you can do with your life? What can be accomplished?
DM: He just brought inspiration for a lot of things. Just a big brother for a lot of kids, because if you see what he did and even the way he talked, just to watch him make the league and do so well, it was an inspiration for everybody. Even when I didn't like basketball. And when I started playing basketball, he became a bg influence for me.
AK: You didn't start playing basketball at nearly as young an age as your teammates. Did seeing what Dikembe accomplished provide confidence that you could reach the highest level?
DM: Yeah. Of course. When I started playing, like you said, I was pretty late. But I would listen to him, and watch Hakeem Olajuwon. (Dikembe) started when he was seventeen. I was started when I was seventeen years old, too. So it was nice for me to listen to him, spend time with him, and talk with him. He would say, "Listen. I started late. I couldn't score. But when I know what to do, that's what I gonna do."
AK: DId you look Dikembe up once you came to the States?
DM: When I came to the States, my first call was to him. My first call. I spoke to him. And he asked me how I was, how do I feel? I'm like, "I just got here. I really don't know all this." He's like, "What you need to his is rebounding, block shots, listen and learn."
I said, "I don't know, Be. I was playing overseas before I got here. My game is different." Mbenga playing defense
He said, "No. Do what I what ask you to do. Do what I ask you to do for now. And then when you get the confidence, (then work on scoring). Just do what I ask you to do." And I'm like, "I'm trying."
AK: And he was right.
DM: He was right. One time (while playing for the Dallas Mavericks), they put me in the game against him. It was so much fun. We were talking (back and forth). And after the game, we went to eat, and I said, "Listen, when you asked me to do that stuff, I understand. I needed experience. But that's not my game. I'll shoot the ball. I'll score. I'll dribble the ball. I'll make my moves." He's like, 'Who do you play with on your team?'
I said, "We've got Dirk (Nowitzki). We've got Josh Howard."
He said, 'All those guys, they score. They don't need your points. They need you on defense. If you understand and realize that, you'll get the playing time.' And before, I was like, "Yeah, right. That's not true."
If I got playing time, I would try to score, make my shot, until I was like, "Why? Dirk is gonna shoot everything. Josh is going to do everything."
Then I just started just playing defense. Blocking shots. And I started to enjoying playing this game. Defense. Run. Set the screen. Little by little, building my confidence. And then finally, when I was at the point where I wanted to be, I started to make my move. Shooting the ball. And then when we talked, he was like, "What did I tell you?"
Even today, I went to talk with him, he said, "I see you have more confidence now. Remember what I told you the first time we talked? I knew what I was saying. That doesn't mean, you don't have any game. But you gotta know where they need you."
AK: Were you ever on the wrong end of a finger wag?
DM: No. And I told him, if I ever block your shot, I'm gonna give you one of those. But it never happened. Every time we played against him, I would wait for him to try and make a move with me, so I could block the shot and do him back. But if I play (during the series), just for him, to give him my thanks, if I block a shot, I'm gonna do (a finger wag).
Unfortunately, Mbenga played just eight minutes and change during the series, so we never got an index finger tribute. Instead, we'll just have to make due with the verbal variety. And speaking of spoken tributes, if you've never seen this clip of various Rockets imitating Mutombo's raspy voice, immediately hit play on the following clip. It's hilarious.