- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2001

PHILADELPHIA The Philadelphia 76ers appeared to be the most stable team in the NBA before the Feb. 22 trading deadline.

On the strength of 10 straight wins to start the season and 13 consecutive road wins later on, the Sixers developed the best chemistry in the league to post a league-best 41-14 mark.

But Sixers coach Larry Brown wasn't satisfied. Brown liked his team, but deep down he felt something was missing. An inside force, Brown reasoned a rebounding, shot-blocking force like Atlanta's 7-foot-2 Dikembe Mutombo would allow the Sixers to emerge as a force capable of challenging the giants of the Western Conference. It didn't hurt that Mutombo's 22-rebound performance for the East team in the All-Star Game left Brown drooling.

Well, the deal got done the Sixers traded injured league-leading shot blocker Theo Ratliff, sporadic Toni Kukoc and two others for the center and some spare parts.

Since then, though, it has been all downhill. Although the 76ers finished with the best record in the Eastern Conference (56-26) and captured the top seed for the East playoffs, they sputtered down the stretch. With Mutombo in the lineup, the Sixers went 15-12, including 3-11 against playoff-bound teams. And after losing Game 1 of their best-of-7 conference semifinals to the Toronto Raptors on Sunday, the Sixers have lost homecourt advantage twice in two series.

Not good results for Brown's gamble.

"I think our chemistry is fine," said Mutombo, who won a league-record fourth defensive player of the year award earlier this week. "Despite the loss yesterday, coming out today in practice everyone was fine and looking forward to our game on Wednesday. Our whole focus is for us to come out and win the game Wednesday, and we're going to come out and win it."

Mutombo led the league in rebounding (13.5) and finished fifth in blocks with 2.71. In 26 games with the Sixers, he had four blocks or more 11 times and had a season-high nine against his old team March 9.

But at 34 he will turn 35 next month there's some thought around the league that Mutombo, though four inches taller than Ratliff, makes the 76ers less athletic. Ratliff missed the final two months of the season because of a wrist injury.

"I don't like that trade," an official in the Washington Wizards organization said. "I don't like that for Philly at all. You have to respect what Mutombo has done and what he can still do. But Theo was just starting to come into his own. I think Philly was thinking that this was the year for them. But Theo's just 28. I know he's hurt and out for the season, but they might regret making that deal at some point."

The Sixers aren't saying that at least not yet.

Although it is no secret that the Sixers acquired Mutombo a free agent they likely will re-sign this summer with designs on a championship this season, general manager Billy King acknowledged the team has not jelled the way he and Brown imagined. However, King blamed that more on injuries to players like possible MVP Allen Iverson and Aaron McKie, a candidate for the Sixth Man award.

"Allen got hurt, Aaron was hurt for a little bit there and Eric Snow was trying to get healthy," King said. "So the chemistry problem had little to do with Dikembe and a lot more with other key players being out."

King had said the Sixers wouldn't have dealt Ratliff without the threat of season-ending wrist surgery. Yesterday, however, he admitted he and Brown had been thinking about adding a physical presence to the lineup since the start of the season.

"The media said we did it to win a championship," King said. "But Larry and I were talking about adding a big center early in the season. I inquired about Dikembe early in the year."

Mutombo said the trade has revitalized his career. However, nothing Mutombo will experience on the court this season, even a championship, can begin to compare to an even bigger dream.

In September, Mutombo will preside over the groundbreaking of a 300-bed hospital in Kinshasa, his hometown and the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The hospital will be named the Biamba Mutombo Hospital after his mother, Marie, who died at 63 because there was no decent hospital in the war-ravaged central African nation to take her to following a stroke.

Mutombo has committed $3.5 million of his own money to the $14 million project, which will be the first new medical building in Kinshasa in 40 years. Seeing this dream close to completion means even more to Mutombo than a championship.

"This has been a great year, with me being traded and the team being in the mix for a championship," Mutombo said. "But the hospital will be the highlight of it all. It will mean so much to people who have so little, people who deserve to have so much."

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