Before diving into this column I have to tell a quick Dikembe Mutombo story. During the summer of 1996 I lived in Atlanta where I attended Emory University and worked for Turner Sports assisting with their Summer Olympic ventures. In July that year, my boss at the time said: "I have good news and bad news for you. The good news is you're going to meet Dikembe Mutombo today ... " (As you can imagine, I was beyond excited.) " ... the bad news is that you're going to meet Dikembe Mutombo because he just signed with the Atlanta Hawks." I was crushed. I was finally going to meet the best Denver Nuggets center of all time and for all the wrong reasons. But I did meet Mutombo that day and, as he was then and has always been, he was pure class.
I wouldn't meet Mutombo again until 2011 when I had the privilege of attending the NBA's Basketball Without Borders Africa camp in Johannesburg, South Africa. That summer we had ample time to talk and get to know each other, and I documented a portion of that exchange in a 2011 column that I wrote for our parent company SB Nation. The Mutombo I got to know then and have seen periodically since is one of the most worldly, thoughtful and perceptive person I've ever met and is well suited to be the NBA's Global Ambassador, a position he has held with the utmost dignity for about six years now. Which is why Mutombo's enshrinement into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts on Friday night was a well deserved no-brainer. Dikembe Mutombo is the very embodiment of what being a Hall of Famer means in every possible way.
But while Mutombo's induction into the Basketball Hall of Fame might be a no-brainer, whether or not to retire his number 55 jersey in the Pepsi Center rafters here in Denver requires some debate. Several weeks before Mutombo's induction, The Denver Post's Chris Dempsey wrote that Nuggets fans can "expect Dikembe Mutombo’s number to be retired by the Nuggets as well." Adding that: "Mutombo’s constantly packed schedule would be the only real obstacle in getting it done." Dempsey also cited Mutombo's Nuggets number 55 jersey hanging recently in the rafters of Johannesburg's Ellis Park Arena during the NBA Africa Game that took place on August 1st (and I attended) and Mutombo wearing that jersey in the game itself when he made a surprising and inspiring appearance for Team Africa versus Team World. And in advance of Mutombo's Hall of Fame induction, the Atlanta Hawks - Mutombo's second NBA franchise and his American home town ever since he arrived in Atlanta in 1996 - announced that they would be retiring Mutombo's number 55 jersey on November 24th, despite the fact that Mutombo played a half season less in Atlanta than he did in Denver.
As you can see, the momentum is clearly there for a Mutombo jersey retirement in Denver. And perhaps it is indeed the right thing to do. I'm somewhat "old school" when it comes to jersey retirements and often side with longevity as a major factor in retiring one's jersey, but here are some reasons why a Mutombo jersey retirement makes sense ...
... despite playing for the Nuggets for only five seasons, Mutombo stands as the franchise's all-time leader in blocks and is third all-time in rebounds (behind Byron Beck and Dan Issel, both of whom have their jerseys retired by the Nuggets). Mutombo is also the Nuggets all-time leaders in rebounds and blocks per game, by a wide margin.
... during Mutombo's five seasons in Denver, he appeared in three All-Star Games and won the NBA's Defensive Player of the Year in 1994-95.
... Mutombo was the anchor for the 1993-94 Nuggets squad that pulled off the greatest upset (at the time) in NBA Playoffs history when Mutombo's 42-win Nuggets became the first-ever number eight seed to defeat a number one seed in a playoff series by defeating the 63-win Seattle Supersonics in five games. To this day, the image of Mutombo clutching the basketball as the Nuggets closed out Game 5 on Seattle's Key Arena floor remains as one of the most iconic in NBA Playoffs history.
... other than Fat Lever, Ralph Simpson, Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, the Nuggets don't have a lot of additional candidates to honor with a jersey retirement (hopefully Emmanuel Mudiay someday!). In fact, the Nuggets four retired jerseys - Beck's number 40, Issel's number 44, David Thompson's number 33 and Alex English's number 2 (plus Doug Moe's number 432 honoring his all-time Denver coaching victories) - ranks the franchise's total jerseys retired among the lowest of all non-expansion NBA teams.
But IF the Nuggets organization does in fact retire Mutombo's number 55, they will have some egg on their face for not retiring Lever's number 12 when they had the chance last season when Lever was honored at halftime of an April home game against the Los Angeles Lakers with ... wait for it ... a painting. Because if Mutombo's five-year stint in Denver is jersey retirement worthy, then Lever's six-year tenure during which he cemented himself as the Nuggets best point guard of all time surely is. To this day, Lever ranks second on the Nuggets all-time list for assists (behind English), is first in steals, first in triple doubles (sixth all-time in NBA history!), seventh in points and eighth in rebounds. Lever was also a two-time All-Star while in Denver and the starting point guard on two of the best Nuggets teams of all-time, the 52-win 1984-85 Nuggets and the 54-win 1987-88 Nuggets.
And what about Ralph Simpson? In six seasons as a Denver Rocket / Nugget in the American Basketball Association (ABA) Simpson made five All-Star teams, helped the lead the team to back-to-back 60-plus win seasons and an ABA Finals appearance in 1976, and to this day ranks fifth in all-time points scored for the Nuggets franchise. Simpson's tenure may seem like ancient history to the modern day Nuggets fan, but was his contribution to the franchise less worthy than Mutombo's?
Other than Lever and Simpson, should Mutombo get his number 55 retired in Denver two additional potential jersey retirements will come up: Carmelo Anthony's number 15 (after he retires from the NBA, of course) and Chauncey Billups' number 7 or 1. Soon after Anthony and Billups were traded to the New York Knicks in 2011, I asked this very question and concluded that Anthony's seven-and-a-half seasons in Denver were jersey retirement worthy. Anthony's many on and off-the-court issues aside, he appeared in four All-Star Games, delivered seven straight playoff appearances and a Western Conference Finals run and finished third in all-time points scored and free throws made. And as I stated at the time, if the Milwaukee Bucks could make peace with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and the Utah Jazz could make peace with Adrian Dantley, the Nuggets can eventually make peace with Anthony.
A Billups jersey retirement is much trickier, however. The Denver-born and raised, University of Colorado alum Billups appeared in just 259 regular season games as a Denver Nugget but was the catalyst behind the Nuggets' magical 2009 Western Conference Finals run alongside Anthony and appeared in two All-Star Games as a Nugget. Throw in Billups's Denver roots and legendary status locally and retiring his jersey will certainly get serious consideration soon ... especially if Mutombo gets his number 55 hung from the Pepsi Center rafters for five years of service in a Nuggets uniform.
As Dempsey noted in his column on the subject, typically NBA franchises honor their former stars before Springfield does. And with the Hawks announcing a Mutombo jersey retirement ceremony for Mutombo combined with his recent Hall of Fame induction, the Nuggets look like they're playing catch up. Regardless, if Mutombo's five-year run in Denver is jersey retirement worthy than so is Lever's and Simpson's. Which means if the Nuggets want to set this precedent, they have a lot of catching up to do.