It was supposed to be Alonzo Mourning’s year.
It was the summer of 2000, and Michael Jordan had long since gone away. The Knicks had traded Patrick Ewing, and embraced a rebuilding plan of sorts. The Indiana Pacers had made the Finals the season before, but they restructured the team’s roster in the wake of Rik Smits’ retirement. The Bucks couldn’t get their act together. Allen Iverson and Vince Carter’s teams, seemingly, were not ready to rule the Eastern Conference. The East was open for the taking.
Knowing this, Pat Riley went to work. He maneuvered on draft night to pick up shooter Eddie House, and stalwart scorer Chris Gatling. Months later, Gatling was used as an asset to acquire power forward Brian Grant in a three-way deal. A few weeks before that, Riley sent longtime Heat forwards P.J. Brown and Jamal Mashburn to Charlotte for Eddie Jones and Anthony Mason. These may not seem like huge moves in 2014, but during that era Grant was an emerging star, Jones was routinely on the All-Star team, and Mason ended up making his first All-Star game later that season. To top things off, Riley also re-signed franchise point man Tim Hardaway.
All would be in Miami to support the heart and soul of the franchise, the aforementioned Mr. Mourning, who was coming off of winning a gold medal in the Sydney Olympics.
Long after the published NBA season preview issues hit the stands, Mourning would take in a life-altering diagnosis. “Focal segmental glomerulosclerosis” was the call, a kidney condition that can be exacerbated by the typical NBA player’s reliance on anti-inflammatory pills. Alonzo would be out for an indefinite amount of time, his dream season scuttled, his best chance at a ring taken away.
Mourning would return later that season, but in a diminished state he was never a dominant contributor. The Heat were swept out of the playoffs that season, and though Zo would make an All-Star team for a lottery-bound Miami squad the next season, he just wasn’t the same player. Mourning sat out all of 2002-03 while receiving a kidney transplant, only returning as a bit player of sorts for the New Jersey Nets. Zo got that ring as a reserve for the Heat in 2006, and he retired after suffering a torn patella during the 2007-08 season.
It’s not a sad story, but it’s a story that is missing some parts. Mourning never earned a ring as the lead horse on a championship contender, and he fell short of an MVP award during his best season. The story is typical for many of Mourning’s Jordan-era contemporaries, with the caveat that unlike Karl Malone, Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing or John Stockton, Alonzo’s prime came after Jordan’s retirement.
Alonzo wouldn’t call that a disappointment, though. This is a foster kid that worked as a 6-10 (maybe) center during the NBA’s last great era full of 7-plus big men. His offensive game was never astounding – all dunks, righty jump hooks, and short baseline jumpers – but after eight seasons as a pro he was averaging over 20 points per game on his career. He remained a mindful team defender and killer post defender all while averaging more blocks per minute than anyone in NBA history.
(Since they started keeping the stat, at least. We hear you from down here, Wilt.)
Mourning’s teams were always foiled by demons, though. His squads were toppled by the Bulls, a lineup featuring Will Perdue and then Luc Longley at starting center, in three consecutive postseasons. Alonzo, and there is absolutely no excuse for this, completely sandblasted his team’s chances at winning a title by getting into a notorious and needless late-game fight in Game Four of the first round of the 1998 NBA playoffs with former teammate Larry Johnson, earning himself a suspension for the series-deciding Game Five against the New York Knicks (working without an injured Patrick Ewing), with a Knicks win sending his 55-win Heat home way too early.
His best season came the next year, he should have won the MVP (Malone earned his second trophy that year), but his top-seeded Heat lost to the Knicks in the first round yet again – the first top overall playoff seed to lose in the first round in Eastern Conference postseason history. New York also toppled the Heat in 2000. Six consecutive playoff ousters at the hands of just two teams.
From there came the illness, and the decline. From there also came the gold medal, that eventual championship ring (after a Finals series that saw Mourning outplay a weary and overweight Shaquille O’Neal off the Heat bench), his rightful lionization, and deserved Hall of Fame induction. As unfortunate as it may have been to see Mourning cut down in his prime, and as frightening as the diagnosis and eventual transplant may have been, you get the feeling that an unbowed Alonzo Mourning will take all of it.
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