March 23, 2010
Early today, as high school hoops standout Brandon Knight and others muddled through another day of class, Alonzo Mourning(notes) strode in to surprise Knight and present him with his second consecutive Gatorade Player of the Year award, a designation handed to the top high school athlete in several sports each year.
Knight, a decorated point guard from Pine Crest high school in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, joins the ranks of LeBron James(notes) and Greg Oden(notes) as the only two-time winners in the award's 25-year history.
Alonzo himself took the trophy in 1988, and he was kind enough to discuss that award, my two-decade long obsession with LaPhonso Ellis' time as a prep standout at Chicago King, the state of flopping in the NBA, and his own continued efforts on behalf of those stricken with kidney disease.
Click the jump for excerpts of the Q+A session.
Kelly Dwyer: Watching some of the games last night, I noticed that a lot of big men were dunked on, and how rarely that seems to happen these days. You were dunked on quite a bit in your time, but you also threw back just as many dunks at the rim. The theme behind this being that you actually, as a big man, jumped to contest shots, rather than running up underneath someone and flopping to the floor after contact. Why do you think this change has set in, where we get a bunch of 7-foot Derek Fishers?
Alonzo Mourning: Well you know, they don't have any shot-blockers anymore. And, to tell you the truth, most of the big men are playing on the perimeter. It's amazing now, our perimeter-orientated game. One thing I was never afraid of was contesting shots, that's how I made my living. I led the country my freshman year in blocked shots. As a freshman. And in high school I averaged a triple-double in blocks; 10 blocks a game in high school.
It's a mentality. It's a mentality you have to develop, and when you're playing down in that painted area, the instincts just take over. That's your painted area, and you want to guard it.
And not everyone has those particular instincts. Especially if you're standing further away from the basket. I think that's how I was taught, and I think because the game has changed so much, you have a bigger perimeter mentality, and you have a lot of big guys that aren't playing like big guys.
They don't block shots, they don't post up anymore, they're just shooting a lot of jumpers. That makes all the difference in the world. It's amazing - if I came into the NBA now, like I came back into the NBA in '92, I'd probably be averaging 30 a game.
KD: Really? (Laughs. Alonzo is not laughing.)
Zo: I would be averaging five or six blocks a game. Seriously. I was 20 and 10 and three blocks back then, so, it'd be a totally different story right now.
KD: You work with the Heat in a development position, and it's a weird year for the team. They're playing very well as of late, but the team is almost entirely made up of expiring contracts, kind of like the first Heat team you played for in 1995-96, when almost the entire roster was full of expiring deals, including yours and Tim Hardaway's. Is there anything from that year that you've been able to talk to this year's team about, about focusing on this season and forgetting about this summer?
Zo: No, I leave that to the coaching staff, to talk to the players about what they need to know from the perspective of focusing on their on-court activities. We've got a good staff, very good staff of individuals; and they go through everything to prepare the guys.
Free agency has been part of the game for years. We're fortunate enough that we have the flexibility as a team to go after some top free agents, and I think it's going to be very interesting on July the 7th. It's going to give us an opportunity to sign our main guy, D-Wade, and at the same time go out and sign one of these top free agents to join him, as well as bring another All-Star in.
It's a great position to have, but we're trying to focus on finish this year strong, and lock up that playoff spot. Because anything can happen. Anything can happen in the playoffs.
KD: Tomorrow's a big day for you, as you're going to get talk to the South Carolina state Legislature, I was wondering if you could go over what you plan to talk about, and who you're trying to influence.
Zo: South Carolina has some of the worst statistics as far as kidney disease. Diabetes, hypertension; it's very rampant in South Carolina. And I think the Legislature needs to understand that we need to formulate the laws that can benefit individuals that are affected by kidney disease.
Fortunately here, in the state of Florida, Governor [Charlie] Crist passed the Medigap Bill, now called the Alonzo Mourning Access to Care Act, that enables individuals to receive medical coverage without having to exhaust their assets. I think it's a tremendous benefit to individuals, not having to lose all their personal assets to qualify for the proper care. I feel like my voice, my presence, and what I stand for could be very instrumental in trying to change the lives of others from that perspective.
KD: Are you doing anything in that regard to try to warn off younger players about the sort of abuses that could lead to kidney problems? It's a long season, you're around these players, and every one of these guys wants to pop 10 Advil a day - though it's not your role with the team, are you talking to these guys? Do you think things have changed a bit since 2000, when you were diagnosed, and when Sean Elliott had his public struggles with kidney disease?
Zo: I think that there's more of an awareness than there was back in 2000.
I think the blessing that came from me having to go through a very difficult time is the fact that my experiences will help educating people, and to influence them to get regular checkups. For the most part, the reason why I went through that and am able to sit here and talk to you today with a functioning kidney is that transplants save lives, and organ donation saves lives. I'm a voice for that, to influence other people to be organ donors, and to take the right approach to taking care of themselves.
KD: It's the 25th anniversary of the Gatorade Player of the Year, and I'd say you were well-deserved to win it in 1988, but as a Chicago guy, I'm a little upset that you won it over LaPhonso Ellis. Couldn't there have been a co-award that year or something?
Zo: I don't think there's ever been a co-award in the Player of the Year.
KD: Yeah, but LaPhonso was on it that year.
Zo: LaPhonso didn't average a triple-double that year, so ...
Zo: I think that made a difference that year, I think that helped me edge LaPhonso that year. But you're right; he was a great high school player. I played against LaPhonso in high school, in the 7up All-Star Tournament, or something like that, in St. Louis, Missouri. And I remember winning that tournament, by the way.
KD: Duly noted.
Zo: You think of the 25 years, and the alumni that comes with it, you think of someone like Brandon Knight who is one of three guys who have won it twice - along with LeBron James and Greg Oden - which is an amazing accomplishment. This is a young man that truly should be acknowledged and commended for his efforts.
Not just on the basketball court, but off it. He's a community leader, someone who does a lot of work with his church, and academically. He's got a 4.3 grade point average. This kid could receive academic scholarships at any Ivy League school as well as athletic scholarships. That's unheard of. For a young African-American man of his caliber, that's unheard of.
KD: Does that mean, of the top 25, he's got your vote over you? Even though you had the triple-double?
Zo: No. I think LeBron James has my vote.
Zo: He's won it twice. I didn't win it twice.
KD: Well (1987 winner) LaBradford Smith was pretty good back then.
KD: LaBradford Smith? The guy who won it before you?
Zo: OK, well, you gotta think: "LaBradford Smith, or LeBron James?"
KD: They share a syllable, kind of.
Many thanks to Alonzo Mourning for his time earlier today, and his efforts tomorrow on South Carolina's behalf.
Be sure to give a look to the Gatorade Player of the Year website to vote on who you think is the best of the lot. Unfortunately, you can't write LaPhonso Ellis' name in, but I think Zo mentioned some other worthy candidates worth considering.