Days before being inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame, Alonzo Mourning recounted his intriguing life story, the narrative that has become legend over its myriad retellings.
But Mourning tells it differently.
Traditionally, the story begins with him watching his parents’ marriage deteriorate. At 10 years old, he asked to move to a nearby group home.
His precocious decision is seen as an early sign of his ability to pursue what was best for him, regardless of the challenges the best path might present.
In Mourning’s account though, others shine: the counselor who looked out for him, the judge who gave him the decision to leave and the woman who took him in.
From there, his mentors took over, he said, as Mourning benefited from a renowned foster mother and a slew of iconic basketball coaches while he developed.
In either account, the climactic conflict comes in the form of the life-threatening kidney disease Mourning was diagnosed with in 2000. Focal segmental glomerulosclerosis sapped Mourning of his strength, but he received a kidney transplant and helped win Miami’s first championship in 2006.
Mourning is quick to praise the people he credits with his success.
“What if I fell into someone else’s hands who led me in a different direction?” Mourning asked rhetorically. “The reason why I’m going to be on that stage (Friday) is because I survived, because other people made me.”
That is the story Mourning tells, but it is not the whole story.
Unique early life
His calves – that’s the first thing about Mourning that impressed former Indian River High School coach Bill Lassiter, back when Mourning was growing up in Chesapeake.
Mourning was a seventh-grader when Lassiter first saw him and wanted to find out more.
Lassiter’s curiosity brought him to foster mother Fannie Threet, who helped raise nearly 50 kids, including Mourning. She died last October at age 98.
Lassiter gave the kid confidence on the court, and Threet provided him with guidance off it, Mourning said. Together, they helped mold him into the No. 1 recruit in the country.
Heat President Pat Riley said Mourning’s lasting desire to exceed his circumstances stemmed from his unique early life.
Mourning was not done developing, though, and Lassiter grew concerned about what happened next.
“He had the most beautiful smile, and later on, you didn’t see that smile,” Lassiter said. “I enjoyed the time I was working with him, but I don’t know if I could work with him after that smile went away.”
Mourning always hated to lose, and for a while, he rarely did. He won 51 straight games in high school, including a state championship. Opponents grew scared of him while college coaches fawned over him.
But things changed after high school.
Before his freshman year of college, Mourning was one of the last players cut from the 1988 Olympic team.
At Georgetown, coach John Thompson was strict and demanding.
When he got to the NBA, Mourning had to prove himself again. But now he was an undersized center, not an overpowering force. And that got to him. It fueled his anger and his scowl.
Mourning had a series of scuffles, but none compare to the one in Game 4 of the first round of the 1998 playoffs, he said. His run-in with Larry Johnson got him suspended for the final game of the series, which Miami lost.
“He learned from that,” Riley said. “His competitive desire to win sometimes would get the best of him.”
Mourning has always had a remarkable intensity. That’s what struck writer Dan Wetzel when he sat down with Mourning to write the player’s book, “Resilience.”
In 1998, Mourning finally understood that his unrelenting desire to win had caused him to lose. He started funneling his intensity toward controlling his passion.
Over the next two years, Mourning led the league in blocks and was named defensive player of the year each season.
His head was finally in the right place.
Then his body fell apart.
A scary diagnosis
A bastion of strength for so long, Mourning was weaker than ever after his kidney transplant. Surrounded by wires and catheters and heart monitors and IVs, Mourning doubted if he would ever get out.
He had tried to keep the disease from knocking him out of the NBA since he was diagnosed in 2000, but he eventually retired in November 2003 after the Heat declined to renew his contract.
A successful transplant in December lifted his spirits, though, and he was back on the court the following season. By March 2005, he was back with the Heat.
Mourning went on to earn the nickname “Ultimate Warrior” while helping the Heat win its first championship in 2006.
In the postgame news conference, he took off the “stone face” former teammate Muggsy Bogues and others had watched him develop. One question led to an emotional seven-minute speech.
“Some people might not see me as human because of the things I do out there on the court,” Mourning said at the time, “But I’m human.”
Slowly, his scowling gave way to smiling as Mourning transitioned his passion for basketball to philanthropy.
The Overtown Youth Center he helped build currently hosts 400 kids and boasts a 100 percent high school graduation rate. Mourning also has been an active fundraiser for kidney disease research while raising his son, Trey, who will play basketball at Georgetown this year.
“I want people to say I wasn’t just a basketball player,” Mourning said. “I want to be a known as a community leader, an activist, someone who stimulated social change.”
Mourning said he’s driven by “all the blessings I’ve been given.”
“I don’t know if what I’ve accomplished in life could have been accomplished without someone else’s assistance,” he said.
But while Mourning credits his mentors, his mentors credit Mourning for his success on and off the court.
“He’s the most competitive player that I ever coached,” Riley said, “And that’s saying something.”
AAU coach Boo Williams said, “He would have been successful in life if he never picked up a basketball because of his competitiveness and determination.”
Challenges made Mourning, they said.
“The bottom line is it’s my name that’s going to be listed in Springfield, Mass., but this honor is not about me. This moment is truly going to be about those people.”
That’s the way Mourning tells it at least.