It was approaching 2 a.m. last Saturday when the Philadelphia 76ers' bus pulled up to the Hyatt in Charlotte. Despite the hour, a cluster of bleary-eyed autograph hounds stood outside the hotel to greet the team. Practitioner of good, clean living that he is, Allen Iverson scolded the fans for keeping such late hours before obliging them with his signature. A moment later center Dikembe Mutombo stepped off the bus. He was about to skirt the pack when he noticed a young fan playfully wagging a finger at him, mimicking Mutombo's trademark on-court gesture. Mutombo stopped in his tracks, laughed and then signed. "So," he said to his fellow Sixers upon joining them in the lobby, "I guess this is normal for a top team."
This, on the other hand, is not normal for a top team: to break up the nucleus in the middle of an amazingly successful season by trading one All-Star center for another, seven years his senior, who will become a free agent on July 1. Yet that's precisely what Philadelphia did last Thursday, 5� hours before the NBA trading deadline, when it sent center Theo Ratliff, along with forwards Toni Kukoc, center Nazr Mohammed and rookie guard Pepe Sanchez, to the woebegone Atlanta Hawks for Mutombo and forward Roshown McLeod. It was the biggest midseason deal ever made by a team with the league's best record. Whether it was a bold stroke of genius or an epic depression of the panic button is debatable. "I don't get it at all, and I don't like it," said Charlotte Hornets forward P.J. Brown last weekend. "They were going good with Theo. I always thought you weren't supposed to mess with success." His coach, Paul Silas, disagreed: "This could put them over the top."
The Sixers contend that the chance to acquire the 34-year-old Mutombo, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, was simply too good to pass up. Though the 6'10" Ratliff is the league's leading shot blocker, he's a power forward masquerading as a center. Mutombo, the NBA's top rebounder, is a 7'2", 261-pound pilaster whose mere presence induces reflexive pump-fakes. More important, unlike Ratliff, who may be out for the rest of the season after suffering a broken right wrist on Jan. 23, Mutombo will be available to help Philadelphia maintain home court advantage throughout the playoffs. "If Theo is healthy, we don't make this move," says general manager Billy King, who suffered an injury identical to Ratliff's while playing for Duke in 1986-87 and needed more than three months to fully recover. "While he's healing, we have Dikembe out there."
"Theo was great for us," says 76ers president Pat Croce, "but we had an opportunity and we had to carpe Dikembe."
The Seized One drew mixed reviews in his first three games. Having had three hours' sleep the previous night, he arrived in Detroit last Friday evening to find that his name was misspelled MOTOMBO on his jersey, and it wasn't known until 30 minutes before tip-off that he had cleared his physical exam. Nevertheless, in a 99-78 romp over the Pistons, he scored 17 points, grabbed 13 boards and blocked five shots in 36 minutes, and his fierce denial of a Jerry Stackhouse dunk attempt had Philadelphia coach Larry Brown winking at his assistants. Mutombo was less of a presence the next night in Charlotte, failing to reach double figures in scoring or rebounding as the Hornets ended the Sixers' six-game winning streak, 86-85.
"Considering he hasn't even had a practice, he looked pretty good," Brown said after the loss. "We're asking him to rebound and pray defense, which he's been doing his entire career, so I don't foresee any problems." Mutombo did his part against the Bucks on Monday in Philadelphia, pouring in 21 points and snatching 16 boards. But Milwaukee, the second-best team in the East, shot 51.2% to hand the 76ers a 98-91 loss.
Brown had been coveting a bona fide center for months, but his interest in Mutombo was piqued during the All-Star Game. While coaching the Eastern Conference to a dramatic 111-110-win, Brown watched as Iverson scored 25 points to earn MVP honors and Mutombo pulled down 22 rebounds in 27 minutes. Brown was nearly beside himself envisioning the league's leading scorer playing alongside its best rebounder and interior defender. Knowing that Mutombo wanted out of Atlanta, Brown asked him, "Why don't you come play for us?" Mutombo's response: "I like a warm climate."
The day after the All-Star Game, Brown and King worked to structure a deal for Mutombo that didn't include Radiff. Three days before the trading deadline, as Ratliff and his wife shopped for a house in the Philadelphia suburbs, Hawks president Stan Kasten called Croce. Honoring a gentleman's agreement they'd made weeks earlier, Kasten warned Croce that the New York Knicks—potentially the Sixers' biggest challenger in the East—had made an offer for Mutombo that included center Marcus Camby and forward Glen Rice. Galvanized, Brown and King agreed to dangle Ratliff.
The day before the trade deadline, while Ratliff underwent surgery to insert a pin in his wrist, the 76ers still hadn't consummated the deal. When they took the court that night for a home game against the Vancouver Grizzlies, the fans chanted, "No trade, Larry!" Any cold feet, however, got toasty in a hurry when Philadelphia's only other significant inside presence, power forward Tyrone Hill, twisted his right ankle and limped off for X-rays—which proved negative. "I saw that and I'm thinking, You can't take anything for granted in this league," says Brown. "That was a sign." The next afternoon the swap was made.
Though the Sixers have every intention of signing Mutombo to a multiyear deal in the off-season, the trade sent a conspicuous message: Philly believes that its best chance to win a championship is now. Mutombo should help neutralize the mastodons in the Western Conference—the Los Angeles Lakers' Shaquille O'Neal, the San Antonio Spurs' Tim Duncan and David Robinson. and the Portland Trail Blazers' Arvydas Sabonis and Rasheed Wallace—if the 76ers reach the Finals. "If Alonzo Mourning and Grant Hill come back healthy or if the Knicks sign Chris Webber, who knows what happens next year" says one Eastern Conference executive. "I think Philadelphia wants to strike while the iron is hot."