DALLAS – On Nov. 10, 1989, John Thompson lined up his Georgetown Hoyas basketball team at practice and asked them a question: Could anyone tell him what major event had occurred the night before?
These kinds of breaks from practice, where non-basketball lessons were taught, weren't unusual. "I did a lot of crazy things," Thompson said. Yet no one was prepared. Thompson's question was met by silence.
The answer was the Berlin Wall had begun to fall. It was a symbolic end to the Cold War, yet the players seemed oblivious to the news. Thompson found this embarrassingly unacceptable even for self-obsessed college kids.
Here they were, after all, at Georgetown University, surrounded by so much knowledge, creativity and intelligence. They needed, the coach lectured sternly, to start acting like the name on the front of the jersey meant something to them.
Standing there that day was Alonzo Mourning, then 19 years old, who heard the words and never forgot them. His first move was pragmatic because he didn't want to get flat-footed on any future Big John pop quiz.
"From that day on I bought the Washington Post each morning and read it, or, at the very least, looked at the headline on the front page," Mourning said. "So at least I'd know."
Mourning's second move was bigger. He realized his coach was correct. Here was a kid who arrived at Georgetown via a Chesapeake, Va., foster home. "When I signed Alonzo, the state had to sign the letter of intent," Thompson said. Here was a guy who, while undoubtedly smart and full of potential, had come to this elite institution because of his physical skill. To not make the most of such a gift would've been a tragedy.
"From that day on," Mourning said, "I tried to take in everything Georgetown had to offer. I wasn't just going to be a basketball player. …That [day in practice] was a part of the whole journey, understanding that my life was not just the sum total of eight to nine pounds of air in a ball."
Mourning and Thompson, player and coach, student and teacher, were together again on Monday in a hotel ballroom here.
Mourning had just been announced as a member of the 2014 class for the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. Thompson, 72, himself a Hall of Famer (Class of 1999) watched with pride.
When Thompson coached the Hoyas he was known for his serious, even unapproachable public persona. Couple that with his willingness to speak out strongly on difficult social issues and his program was unlikeable to many. Hoya Paranoia they called it. Mourning, for his part, was a brooding, physical, intimidating force as a player, known for brawls and blocks as much as anything. He was hardly a loveable, huggable figure on the court.
This is probably the last pairing you'd expect to find a story of a feel-good bond, but behind those walls built on scowls, there was a private relationship with so much depth.
So, sure, this was a day for basketball, a day to celebrate Zo's relentless career where he was a seven-time NBA All-Star who famously came back from a kidney transplant to win an NBA title in Miami.
Mourning was honored. He was humbled. Yet …
"All I did was play a game that I loved," Mourning said. "That's all I did."
Instead of talking about what he gave basketball, Mourning was just as eager to talk about what basketball gave him … namely a relationship with Thompson, four years at Georgetown where he earned his degree and a lifelong love and appreciation for education.
Thompson "was a large part in helping me understand that basketball was temporary," Mourning said. "You are going to have to learn to strengthen your literary skills. You're going to have to learn to survive outside the game of basketball because one day it will be over with.
"As my career developed, I knew for a fact that so many good things evolved through my level of intellect and my ability to communicate with other people and have relationships," Mourning continued. "It all started at Georgetown. It really did. That intellectual process, stimulating it to the level I needed be as a person, it started at Georgetown University.
"And Big John was the person who enforced it."
Mourning, 44, retired in 2009 and is now a vice president with the Miami Heat. He also runs Alonzo Mourning Charities Inc., which operates a series of organizations both in South Florida and nationally. They range from aiding the fight against kidney disease to assisting foster children.
He also raised the funds to build and operate the Overtown Youth Center, a remarkable, full-service facility to help underprivileged kids in the blighted Overtown neighborhood of Miami with special attention placed on education. His goal is to open more across the region. His wife Tracy – they met in college – runs her own organization designed to empower young girls.
Mourning isn't just a basketball hero in South Florida. He and his wife are pillars of the community. In 2009, Miami-Dade County named a high school after them.
You want to get Zo's old coach smiling, mention that, not some old blocked shot.
"Your responsibility is to educate people totally, not just to educate them as it relates to basketball," Thompson said. "I'm proud of Alonzo first of all because he was receptive to being educated. It doesn't concern me where someone was at a given time. It concerns me where they are willing to go.
"And even more significant, he is not afraid to deal with people who are less fortunate than him. He and his lovely wife are now doing a whole lot of things. I'm proud of all of that."
Mourning admits he arrived at Georgetown knowing little about the place. It was a team as much as a school. He was the next Patrick Ewing. Thompson could get him to the league.
"I didn't understand the global prestige of that university," he said.
A couple decades later, he sits on the school's ultra-prestigious Board of Directors. "Not an athletic board," Thompson said. "He is a director at Georgetown. He [was] placed on that board because of his intelligence and the feeling he could give a different perspective."
Predicting long ago that Alonzo Mourning, the No. 1 high school player in America, might make the Hall of Fame is one thing.
But envisioning this scene – a no-nonsense coach and impressionable kid who became lifelong friends sharing a moment to celebrate the non-basketball accomplishments they built together – is another.
"It's only fitting [he is here] really," Mourning said. "It's only fitting that he is here because I would not be standing on that stage without him. By far I would not be standing on that stage without his patience … the contributions he's made … and his love for me."