MIAMI, March 7 -- Sweat streaming down the back of his neck, Miami Heat center Alonzo Mourning took a pass with his back to the basket, spun, faked, and with a guttural moan, powered toward the hoop, laying the ball against the backboard. It spun out, but Mourning kept the play alive, ripping the ball out of the air. With another grunt, he used both hands to slam it through the hoop, then hung on the rim as the backboard reverberated.
And then he jogged to the top of the key to practice another low-post move more than an hour before the start of Miami's game Monday night against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Heat center Alonzo Mourning, the team's mainstay before his kidney transplant, is searching for his first NBA title.
(Luis Alvarez -- AP)
On game nights for the foreseeable future, these high-intensity personal pregame practice sessions on mostly empty courts are likely to provide Mourning with more vigorous workouts than anything he does after tip-off. In his first four full games with his former team since re-signing after a two-year absence last week, Mourning has played a total of 13 minutes, scoring six points, grabbing eight rebounds and blocking three shots.
That would have been a routine quarter of work for him during his previous eight-year stint here, but it now represents the latest step in what will be a never-ending rehabilitation from his Dec. 19, 2003, kidney transplant operation.
And there is this issue, too: The Eastern Conference-leading Heat (46-16), which defeated the 76ers, 108-100, Monday night, doesn't really need more from the '92 No. 2 overall pick out of Georgetown, once the heart and soul of the franchise, a man all but guaranteed the retirement of his No. 33 when he retires, but now little more than a fabulous piece of defensive insurance at the far end of the bench.
Brought in merely to enhance Miami's multi-faceted symphony orchestrated by Shaquille O'Neal and Dwyane Wade, Mourning won't be the leading man, not now and not in June. By game plan and life situation, he likely will receive no more than a pair of six-to-eight minute shifts per game when the Heat needs a dose of shot blocking and rebounding, Heat Coach Stan Van Gundy said Monday.
In other words, it will be a challenge for Mourning to score more points on any given night than he takes pills -- more than 20 -- during the day.
"I'm on a tremendous amount of medication that helps me, but at the same time, it has an effect on my endurance," said Mourning, standing shirtless in the middle of the Heat's locker room, his body still rippling with lean muscle mass. "I've been able to balance that and do what I'm able to do to keep myself in decent shape, but I know I'm not a 48-minute-a-game-player anymore. I can't carry an organization like I did in the past.
"Internally, I'm dealing with things now that are beyond my control. I have to be smart about it. I'm not just worried about getting through 48 minutes, I'm worried about getting through the next 50 years. At the same time, I think I can contribute to a winning ballclub."
So, apparently, do the fans at American Airlines Arena, who in his home debut last Friday serenaded Mourning, 35, with one of the sweetest receptions of his career. With more than 10 minutes remaining in the Heat's victory over the Sacramento Kings, and Mourning still ensconced on the bench, the crowd began chanting "We Want Zo! We want Zo!"
The booming chants continued -- even O'Neal gleefully took part -- until Van Gundy called upon Mourning with about three minutes left. When Mourning, whose permanent residence is here and who has been known for his extensive charitable work in Miami's poorest areas, took the court in a Heat uniform for the first time in three years, he received a long, stirring standing ovation.
He responded with a ferocious block and rebound on his first defensive series.
"I wish I could bottle that feeling and sell it," Mourning said. "That was an incredible feeling. The appreciation the fans showed me was very, very, very special.
"It has been amazing. Words can't explain how I feel about this city . . . I see Alonzo Mourning growing old in this community."