Photo: Keith Allison
Alonzo Mourning is officially headed to the Basketball Hall of Fame. A congratulations and a thank you are in order.
Sadly, I once thought Zo could be spurned from basketball’s highest individual honor because his career stats weren’t sexy enough. He averaged 17.1 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks for his career, excellent numbers but not quite elite. But Zo’s career was never about numbers or awards. Yes, he twice led the league in blocks while winning Defensive Player of the Year. Yes, he was honored with seven all-star appearances. Yes, he cemented his career with a championship in 2006, providing a critical role off the Heat bench. But what still towers in my mind today, six years removed from his final game, is how he played the game. I’m not necessarily referencing the menacing stuffs at the rim. Nor am I referring to his borderline-annoying yet surprisingly accurate face-up jumper where he would stare at his defender for three full seconds before letting the ball fly. “Just shoot the effing ball!” was a regular demand beaming from my dad’s mouth during Heat games in the late 90′s.
It was always about Alonzo Mourning’s intensity. Intensity–not defense, not shot-blocking, and not scoring–was his finest skill. Anyone who has ever seen him play, at any point of his career, surely recognized the passion with which Zo emitted from rim to rim. And don’t tell me intensity is not a skill. It often separates good from great and great from special. Mourning took great pride in his game and it showed.
The league is no longer filled with men of Zo’s mentality, players who–regardless of situation–unleash every ounce of energy into to each possession. Whether it was a meaningless preseason game in Utah or Game 5 of the NBA Finals, Zo always brought it and he brought it hard. The popcorn muscles created intimidation, but his inner strength was far more imposing. Offering less skill than many of his peers–Shaquille O’Neal, Patrick Ewing, and Hakeem Olajuwon, to name a few– Zo’s intensity was unmatched. He was the quintessential Pat Riley player, the backbone of a new-look Heat organization, with a foundation of work ethic and defense. Whereas Magic was Riley’s general in Los Angeles, Zo was thrust into the role in Miami.
This is a man who was diagnosed with kidney disease before the 2000-01 season, retired due to complications in November 2003 and underwent a successful kidney transplant a month later. Despite having major concerns from doctors about returning to the NBA, a league oozing with some of the most athletic specimens in the world, he would return and finish strong. The following is an excerpt from his inspiring book called Resilience amid his comeback after the transplant:
“Any one shot might damage the kidney. I was going to wear a piece of protective equipment to help, but it wasn’t foolproof. Who really knew what could happen? Was I really willing to risk a damaged kidney, maybe risk my life, to play basketball again? If I was, it wasn’t going to be without complete preparation. I told Shuichi (his trainer), ‘I want to build a layer of armor around my kidney.’ So we went about building that armor.”
He came back from a KIDNEY TRANSPLANT to play professional basketball again, despite the major potential health risks. Though he would never be the same Zo from a volume/output standpoint, the tenacity reached ridiculous levels under that layer of muscular armor. I’m not sure the Heat beat the Mavericks in the 2006 NBA Finals without his leadership and energy, defensively and on the glass. If you haven’t read his book, you should. Resilience is a perfect title to sum up Alonzo Mourning, both the player and the person.
“It was great to see this generation of the team show the respect for one of the pillars of our franchise,” Erik Spoelstra said last week after hearing about Zo entering the hall. “And who would have thought it from the first time when he went out with the kidney disease. To see him come back and earn the highest reward is awesome.”
My grandmother passed away a few years ago. She, too, had a kidney condition and actually went to the same specialist as Mourning. A few years before she passed, her eyes glowed when she told me how she witnessed the hulking Mourning walk into the waiting room at her last appointment. She smiled, and he nodded. I could tell from her eyes it was a special moment that resonated with her, giving her a boost of strength in times of peril.
Alonzo Mourning is the first Miami Heat player to enter the Basketball Hall of Fame (unless you want to count the two final washed up years of Gary Payton). He won’t be the last and won’t be the best. But what we must never forget with Zo isn’t just the geometrically impossible blocks or bicep-flared scowls, but with the passion and intensity with which he played the game–every game.
Congratulations, Zo. Thanks for giving us everything you had.