Atlanta and Hawks needed Dikembe Mutombo

They made no secret about it.

The Hawks needed a shot-blocking, rim-protecting center following the 1995-96 NBA season. Enter Dikembe Mutombo. He was the focus that summer of an organization looking to complete a rebuild and change its playoff fortunes.

The Hawks needed Christian Laettner to play center during their 1996 playoff run, which started with a series win over Rik Smits and the Pacers and ended in the next round with a loss to Shaquille O’Neal and the Magic. O’Neal outscored Laettner 139-77 and outrebounded him 57-26.

“It was a significant move for us,” former Hawks general manager Pete Babcock said of signing the free agent Mutombo following his first five seasons with the Nuggets. “The missing link for us was having a defensive presence in the middle and a true center. We publicly said that was what we needed to add to our franchise.

“When we got him, we were taking all this criticism publicly because there were rumors he was going to Detroit and we were going to miss out on him and we had publicly said we needed a shot-blocking center. It wasn’t a secret. Here was one of the best shot-blocking players in the league and he was a free agent.”

The Hawks landed the 7-foot-2 Mutombo, parting with Grant Long and Stacey Augmon in a trade with the Pistons at the suggestion of his agent David Falk to clear the necessary financial room. He agreed to a five-year deal for approximately $55 million.

Mutombo played with the Hawks from 1996-2001 in the prime of an 18-year career that will culminate on Friday with his induction into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. An eight-time All-Star and four-time defensive player of the year award winner, Mutombo made the All-Star team four times as a Hawk and was voted the league’s top defender three times in his four-plus seasons in Atlanta. He led the league in rebounding four times, three times as part of the Hawks. He also led the league in blocks five straight seasons, the last two with the Hawks.

The Hawks announced last week they will retire his No. 55, the fourth uniform number to be so honored in franchise history.

“Playing with him was a treat,” former Hawks player Steve Smith said. “You are talking about a 7-foot-2 center who treated defense like offense. I can say Dikembe would have rather won defensive player of the year than MVP.”

The Hawks never made it out of the second round of the playoffs with Mutombo. In his first season, they defeated the Pistons in the first round. Mutombo’s first postseason game as a Hawk came with 26 points and 15 rebounds.

However, they ran into Michael Jordan and the Bulls in the second round. The Hawks split the first two games of the series in Chicago, but were eliminated in five games. Two seasons later provided another prime chance to move into the conference finals but the Hawks were swept by the eighth-seeded Knicks in the second round of the shortened season.

The Hawks failed to make the playoffs in 1999-2000 and struggled the following season. Mutombo would be traded to the 76ers after 49 games of the 2000-01 season.

“He was obviously our first big-name free agent signee since 1988 (Moses Malone),” former Hawks vice president of communications Arthur Triche said. “Just his imposing size — Moses was 6-11 — but we didn’t have anybody of that stature walk through the doors of the building. … We thought he would be the center we never had.

“For his years here in Atlanta, that’s exactly what he was. It was a shame with that team, we were, once again, never able to get past Chicago. It was frustrating that we had as talented a team as we had, that we couldn’t get to that next level.”

Mutombo finished his time with the Hawks playing in 343 regular-season games, averaging 11.9 points, 12.6 rebounds and 3.2 blocks per game. For his career, he played in 1,196 regular-season games and averaged 9.8 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per game. He is second in NBA history with 3,289 blocked shots, trailing only Hakeem Olajuwon’s 3,830. He is 19th with 12,359 total rebounds.

Despite the Hawks’ ultimate playoff shortcomings, Mutombo brought a defensive presence that ignited the team. His signature finger wag after a blocked shot became must-see. The Hawks incorporated Mutombo’s defensive ability into their schemes, allowing defenders like Mookie Blaylock and Smith to gamble on the perimeter in passing lanes. Or, better yet, they could play aggressively to take away a jump shot and dare an opponent to drive the lane.

“It was absolutely refreshing and gave us an opportunity to be more forceful,” said Long, who the Hawks would re-acquire in 1999. “It’s almost like having a very good 3-point shooter. You know what he’s in the game to do. You are going to find a way to get him the ball. Dikembe was that way, in essence, in that he really took pride in blocking shots and protecting the basket.

“We wanted players to challenge Dikembe because that’s what he thrived on. That was his area of expertise. You want to put a guy in that position. Dikembe, his value was protecting the basket. Well, OK, guess what? If guys are going to go in there and challenge him, we are going to gamble on the perimeter and let him to do what he was paid to do.”

Mutombo has made his home in Atlanta for nearly 20 years since he first arrived to play for the Hawks. Upon his retirement in 2009, he was named the NBA’s first Global Ambassador and continues his humanitarian work with the Dikembe Mutombo Foundation.

It may be Mutombo’s global work away from basketball for which he is most well-known. In 2007, the $29 million Biamba Mutombo Marie Hospital, named for his late mother, opened outside Kinshasa in his native Congo. Mutombo donated more than half the money. His philanthropy continues here and around the world.

“I can’t forget the team that gave me a chance for five years,” Mutombo said last week at a ceremony declaring Sept. 1, 2015 as Dikembe Mutombo Day in Fulton County. “It’s been almost close to 20 years that we have been in this beautiful city, beautiful county. We enjoy it so much. Our children were born here. But this city gave us a lift to go out and do what we love to do — to make a difference in the world and the society we live in. The impact that we are having in the world today comes from the confidence that we have from the city of Atlanta.”

Atlanta needed Dikembe Mutombo and Dikembe Mutombo needed Atlanta. Twenty years later, it’s no secret.