Everyone told Alonzo Mourning to walk away with the Miami Heat’s championship two seasons ago. What else was left? Perhaps the parade down Biscayne Boulevard would’ve been a perfect storybook ending for everyone else, but ’Zo’s journey had been so different, so dramatic, maybe it wasn’t perfect for him.
His life, his story, had never been neat and tidy this way.
So yes, the disturbing tearing of tendons and muscles on Wednesday night was a horrible scene. Mourning crumpled to the floor clutching his knee, his basketball season, his career, over. And then, there was ’Zo. They wanted to carry him off the court, but he bit his lip, climbed to his feet and declared that he’d be damned if they were going to wheel him out of the gymnasium. He threw his arms around his teammates, and Alonzo Mourning, the last tough guy, limped to the locker room.
In that final act of defiance, there was the essence of Mourning. Here was his life, his legacy. Four years to the day that his life was saved with a kidney transplant, that he started one of the remarkable comebacks in NBA history, Alonzo Mourning climbed to his feet one more time.
“This man has a spirit that can never flat-line,” Pat Riley said.
Once, Mourning was the nation’s most celebrated basketball prodigy, considered the best high school player while still a freshman in Chesapeake, Va. He was recruited to be Georgetown’s heir to Patrick Ewing, the second pick for Charlotte in 1992 and eventually traded to the Heat as the $100 million savior for Riley. For 15 seasons, Mourning played hard and played angry. Every day, he brought a frightening ferocity to the floor.
His coaches, Riley and John Thompson, were two of the great brainwashers in history. No one drank the Kool-Aid like ’Zo. No one gave it up like him. He wasn’t the most clutch playoff performer of his time, yet assuredly one of the most tortured until Dwyane Wade and Shaquille O’Neal helped him win that 2006 NBA championship.
Even after, Mourning became the rare active athlete to be truly confronted with his mortality. Four years ago, his kidney transplant changed everything. It humanized Mourning. It awakened him on every level. Those rippling muscles, that perpetual scowl, had been replaced with the frailty of a man at the mercy of the highest power and he has pushed forward with a Lance Armstrong-esque determination. That Mourning would simply get to live wouldn’t be enough for him, because he resolved to live his life his way, by resuming his championship chase.
Everywhere there were grown-ups and kids with transplants, with odds stacked, who turned to him for inspiration. So many climbed on those massive shoulders and let him elevate them. A seven-time All-Star and two-time Defensive Player of the Year, he had never been so important to the game until he made a most improbable return.
Still, everything changed with the transplant in 2003. His calling, his legacy, it’s all different now. He has such big plans, big ambitions. As the rest of his peers have long been pulled to Miami’s South Beach, Mourning felt drawn to the poverty, the plight of Miami’s Overtown. His foundation is considered one of the models for professional athletes, raising millions and millions of dollars for charities. It’s never been a front for him, a PR arm. ’Zo threw himself into his goodwill, the way he did his work.
Mourning wanted to believe the Heat had one more title run this season, but he was kidding himself. Riley, too. They’re 7-19, the worst team in the Eastern Conference. Come back again? To what? He knows that now.
In the end, though, he delivered one final lesson on the basketball court. All the way to that final defiant act, this was ’Zo. That knee got good and torn up the other night and yet beyond all that pain and anger and helplessness, he still figured out a way to direct that final scene. One more time, Alonzo Mourning got up.
The last tough guy has left the gymnasium.
1. For Jeff Nix, a 15-year coach, scout and executive with the New York Knicks, everything started innocently enough: He just wanted to extend his old friend, Jeff Bzdelik, a gesture of goodwill when he was hired as the Air Force Academy’s basketball coach.
From his home near South Bend, Ind., Nix bought a pair of season tickets and instructed Bzdelik, now Colorado’s coach, to donate them to some military kids whose parents were stationed at nearby Fort Carson. The kids, the families, loved it. Before long, Nix and a good friend, Ray Stults, a U.S. Army veteran, asked each other what felt like an obvious question.
Why can’t we make this bigger?
Why can’t we get more tickets for more military children near college campuses?
Now, three years later, they have created a remarkable program called Camouflage Kids. This allows kids with fathers or mothers overseas in military service to get tickets to a nearby college basketball game, get a T-shirt, concession-stand vouchers and sometimes even a chance to get a pep talk from coaches like Michigan State’s Tom Izzo and Indiana’s Kelvin Sampson.
“For three or four hours, these kids have a chance to forget about some other difficult things going on in their lives,” Nix said. “It’s such a great thing for these kids to get on a college campus, get a pat on the back from a college coach or an athlete and just realize that they haven’t been forgotten.”
Several schools with military bases nearby have joined up, so Auburn, Butler, Notre Dame and Valparaiso are a part of it, too. Camouflage Kids has a fundraising barbecue near South Bend in June, when the public can come grill with Izzo, Sampson, Notre Dame’s Mike Brey and Marquette’s Tom Crean. Skip Prosser, a roommate of Nix’s when they were assistants at Xavier, played a part in the program until his death this summer.
This is a wonderful effort one that you can make even better with a donation. Check out www.camokids.org.
2. Unless you’re a Dallas Mavericks fan who’s been cobbling together your every last dime since Jim Spanarkel and Brad Davis were running roughshod in the expansion days, unless you have an ATM card in your wallet that reads “Cuban” on the side, you probably won’t be shopping this Christmas out of the shiny, fancy catalog the Mavs passed out this holiday season.
For a mere $320,000, a 2008 Mavericks Continental GT Bentley can belong to you. This rides includes “cast aluminum logo pedals” and platinum Mavericks emblems on the grill, trunk, wheels and intake manifold. Most of all, you can park in Cuban’s spot at the games. (Actually, you just get to park for free at the games.)
Orange County Choppers rigged up a $100,000 Mavericks model, but you’ve got to believe the owner kept one of those for himself. Can’t you just see Cuban on the television show, barking back and forth with the old man?
Anyway, there’s the life-sized 7-foot Dirk Nowitzki bobblehead for $20,000. It’s the actual model that Avery Johnson used against Golden State in the playoffs a season ago. Twenty-five grand gets you a round of golf with Jerry Stackhouse, and $5,000 less lets you become a Mavericks “Player for a Day.”
You get a one-day contract signed by Cuban, a visit to the morning shootaround and a courtside seat. After the game they’ll even let you hide in the shower for an hour, so the beat writers can miss deadline.
3. Throughout the league, there was a strong initial reaction out of rival executives about Detroit getting Charlotte to relieve them of the $20 million left on Nazr Mohammed’s contract.
Mostly, the reaction went like this: Wow.
No, this won’t be as significant as Detroit general manager Joe Dumars fleecing Michael Jordan and the Washington Wizards for Rip Hamilton in 2002, but the Charlotte part-owner’s willingness to trade the expiring contracts of Walter Herrmann and Primoz Brezec for the underachieving Mohammed was an immense break for the Pistons.
“I’ll say this, though,” one Eastern Conference scout said. “If I’m (Bobcats coach) Sam Vincent, the hell with the salary cap. I want that trade. He’s taking enough heat already and Mohammed gives him something in the middle.”
So far, so good. The way Mohammed has played in his first three games – including 20 points and 14 rebounds against the Knicks Friday night – has belied his negligible production with the Pistons. In the wake of Ben Wallace leaving for Chicago, Dumars signed Mohammed to a six-year, $30 million contract. This year, he was just a complete non-factor for Detroit.
Now, the Pistons shed some serious financial constraints, but understand this: This wasn’t a move to ease the return of free agent Chris Webber. Dumars and Pistons coach Flip Saunders aren’t inclined to bring Webber back for a second season, a league source familiar with the front office’s thinking said. “Very unlikely,” the source surmised.
4. Why wait on Atlanta coach Mike Woodson?
Extend him now.
Yes, there is still a long way to go on this season, but the Hawks’ 14-12 start is the franchise’s best since its last playoff berth in 1999. Most impressively, Atlanta’s victory over Washington on Friday night moved them into second place in the Southeast – just three games behind Orlando.
So much of Woodson’s future with the franchise rested with the development of his young nucleus and they’ve been magnificent this season. Joe Johnson is a star, and Josh Smith is coming fast. Few fill up a box score like him.
Yet, it’s been the leadership, the guts of journeyman Anthony Johnson that’s elevated the Hawks despite so many injures in their backcourt. For a franchise that’s refused to spend money, that’s done little to complement its young core with veterans, Woodson, in his fourth season, has done a terrific job. Lock him up.
5. When Kevin Garnett walked into his locker room hours before the loss to Detroit on Wednesday night and saw a TV camera hanging over the doorway, he shook his head and sighed about Big Brother watching the Celtics.
“I’m going to throw a towel over that thing,” he said, only half-kidding.
His coach, Doc Rivers, can live with getting miked for games now, but he’s understandably queasy about ESPN polluting the league’s locker room with its eye in the sky.
He thinks the locker room is a player’s haven and shouldn’t be violated. He thinks that things said could get out without them ever appearing on television.
“The third thing is coaches don’t want to look like they’re grandstanding,” Rivers said. “Let’s say if I want to go in and I want to give a Knute Rockne speech, and maybe it’s a good one. It’d be rare, but maybe it’s a good one. You have to think twice about how that’s going to look. If I’m a player, how am I going to look at that?”
A coach, grandstanding?
Come on, Doc.
When we left our D-League correspondent, Jeff Ruland, emperor of the Albuquerque T-Birds, a week ago, things weren’t going so well. He had been smacked in back-to-back games, been tossed out of one game for saying something about how the referee’s aunt would be his uncle if … something…
Well, the T-Birds were flying to Ontario and taking vans to Bakersfield and Ruland had never, ever heard of an airport in Ontario, Calif. That’s in Canada, right? Anyway, the good news was that he had a first-round draft pick riding with him.
So Tucker banged Bakersfield for 40 points – hitting for a 36-point average in two victories – and the T-Birds are back to .500 for Christmas. Now, Tucker has gone back to the Suns and Strawberry’s come down.
This has Rules’ thinking, of course. He’s always thinking about these things. Maybe Kerr will send him Shawn Marion this year?
“Just at the end to make a playoff run,” he pleaded.