In the fall of 1988, a lanky freshman peeled off his warmup top in the Georgetown layup line to reveal the number 33. When you ask Michael Wilbon and others at that game to recall their first thought, they all say the same thing: Wait, that’s Patrick Ewing’s old number.
How could the new big man on the Hilltop wear the same number as the original Hoya Destroya? Wouldn’t it eventually be retired?
“We don’t retire numbers,” his coach, John Thompson Jr., said then. “We retire memories.”
We retire memories.
Here’s a couple good ones: In the same year Georgetown celebrates its 30th anniversary of winning the NCAA men’s basketball title, Alonzo Mourning on Monday was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.
“I fell in love with basketball in 1978,” he said early Monday evening in a conference call with reporters. “It enabled me to get an education, see the world and develop relationships with people I never dreamed of. That’s the world basketball opened up for me. When you think of all the people I developed a bond with — teachers, coaches, everyone — I’ll be taking a part of them to the Hall of Fame as well.”
’Zo was part of the official announcement outside of Dallas, standing on a podium with, among other new inductees, former Maryland coach Gary Williams. In the audience was Big John, who by the actual enshrinement ceremony next fall will have coached two bronzed busts in Springfield.
As dominant and deserving as Ewing was, Mourning’s selection is beyond extraordinary. The guy who borrowed Ewing’s old number was blessed, all right, but not with Ewing’s height or his touch.
Standing 6 feet 10 and at times a ripped 260 pounds, Mourning was a center in a power forward’s body, alongside most of his 7-foot-plus NBA contemporaries. All the power cleans in the world couldn’t change that he was physically smaller than the men he was moving aside.
Mourning also didn’t have his peers’ health for half his career.
In 2000, after he helped lead Team USA to a gold medal in Sydney, doctors told him he had a potentially fatal kidney disorder, the same one that ended Sean Elliot’s career. Mourning underwent treatment and, in 2003, a transplant — a career death knell for all but a few elite athletes.
“I had some deep doubt,” Mourning said. “Laying outstretched on that operating table, seeing those images, there was some real doubt that I would be able to come back and compete at a high level again. All I wanted to do was get back on the court.”
With a courageous cousin’s left kidney, Mourning went on to win a championship with Miami in 2006, spelling Shaquille O’Neal, grabbing rebounds and blocking shots for Dwyane Wade. He astonishingly played until 2008, eight years after his first diagnosis.
“After everything he went through, I told him: ‘You gave me courage — how you handled your life, how you determined your future, who you became,’ ” Thompson told Mourning after his last game six years ago. “I wasn’t alone; I didn’t want him back after the kidney” disorder.
Jason Cooper, the distant cousin who gave Mourning his left kidney in 2003, was among the first people Mourning said he called to invite to the Hall of Fame ceremony. Fannie Threet, his foster mother since he was 12 years old and who passed away recently, will be with him posthumously at the induction ceremony, he said, adding, “I’ve had a lot of angels in my life.”
’Zo essentially had two careers. He was a scowling menace in the middle his first eight years, one of the NBA’s most intimidating players carrying the fight-or-die banner for the NBA’s most intimidating coach, Miami’s Pat Riley.
Then, felled by the kidney ailment, he morphed into a man with more humility and less stubborn pride. His blood chemistry, stamina and oxygen intake changing for the worse, he was no longer Mount ’Zo About to Blow; no, Mourning was reduced to a man gasping for breath during long stints on the court.
“I don’t have to be the all-star; I’m over that,’’ Mourning told me in 2003. “Still, you go through withdrawals, like, ‘I used to be able to get that shot,’ and ‘What’s this guy doing blocking my shot?’ ”
I can’t think of anything harder for a perennial all-star — a former force of nature who was twice the league’s defensive player of the year and who averaged more blocks per 48 minutes (5.46) than any player in NBA history — than to come to terms with his own career mortality.
But ’Zo did that. He let go of old expectations, of physically emasculating his opponents and dominating much of the time. He finally got his head around becoming a role player on a title team.
“It was the only way I could still play the game and be at peace with it,” he said.
Seeing Mourning in that charcoal wool suit with the brown sheen tie Monday in the news conference, looking all stately, sounding so polished, it was hard to imagine that lanky kid a quarter-century ago, who for a time wore a high-top fade and broke the first of Ewing’s records by rejecting 12 shots in his third college game.
Incredibly charitable, thoughtful, Mourning dispelled the myth that the angry man on the court had some leftover baggage off it. Yes, there were five ejections, 121 technical fouls, including 12 flagrant, to go along with career averages of about 18 points and 12 rebounds.
There was also an uncommon resilience even among elite athletes, something in Mourning that would not let him give in: to larger men playing his position, to more skilled teams, to a life-threatening kidney ailment.
On all counts, he wouldn’t budge.
When he dropped his mantra one afternoon in a hotel lobby about 12 years ago, it sounded almost gimmicky, something a motivational speaker like Tony Robbins or a high school gym teacher would say. But once the words tumbled out in that ominous, raspy baritone of ’Zo’s, it made perfect sense.
It was something only Alonzo Mourning, Hall of Famer, could get away with saying:
“My main objective was not to succumb, but to overcome.”
I asked him to explain that further Monday night and he obliged:
“I felt at that particular moment in my life I wasn’t going to give up. It wasn’t part of my DNA. I felt deep, down inside that I’m going to overcome. See, a lot of people kill themselves with their thoughts and words. But I’ve found if you surround yourself with good people, good energy and people who have your best interests in mind, good things will evolve for you. I really believe that.”
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.