With Mourning, It's a New Day

By Michael Wilbon
Tuesday, May 30, 2006

MIAMI -- Pat Riley doesn't ask of Alonzo Mourning what he asked once upon a time. Riley doesn't ask Mourning to score 20 points, grab a dozen rebounds, block three shots, play 40-plus minutes, be Miami's best player and win the game. He doesn't ask Mourning to carry the team the way Mourning did in the 1990s, when the two poured the foundation for the franchise.

All he asks of Mourning now is two or three stints of four to five minutes each, which means he wants Mourning merely to perform a miracle.

It's been more than five years since Mourning learned he had focal glomerulosclerosis, the potentially fatal kidney disorder that required him to have a kidney transplant and dramatically changed his life. That he has an athletic career at all at this point is something doctors never would have imagined a few years ago. That he contributes, that he brings the same signature effort and energy and emotion to every minute is a story both triumphant and cautionary.

Playing 500 fewer minutes than Shaquille O'Neal this season, Mourning blocked 69 more shots. His season average of 2.66 blocked shots per game isn't even all that far off his career average of 2.9 per game. And though he never plays enough minutes to get into an offensive groove, Mourning shot 59.7 percent, his career high, and just fractionally less than O'Neal's 60 percent. Mourning hasn't had big-impact contributions in the Eastern Conference series against the Detroit Pistons. Then again, the biggest moments of that series, and the NBA Finals, have yet to be recorded.

Asked before Game 3 what he expects of himself now after all those seasons of averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds, Mourning said: "To make sure that the minutes I'm on the court enhances the play of the team . . . that when I step out there that our play does not decline. I don't want my time on the court to be wasted. I know the minutes will be limited because Shaq will be back in there within the next four or five minutes. . . . I'm going to go extremely hard. . . . I try to make the minutes extremely productive. I give everything I've got. It ain't a matter of pacing myself. Only if I know that Shaq is not playing that evening do I pace myself or pick my spots. But backing him up, it's not about pacing. I've got six fouls. I've got a limited amount of time, so I just go as hard as I can."

He averaged 20 minutes over 65 games, 7.8 points and 5.5 rebounds, which is heroic given what Mourning went through when he first felt ill, at the end of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, the agony he endured during treatments and exploration just to diagnose his illness -- not to mention the stress and preparation for the kidney transplant, then the subsequent recuperation.

"It's a good feeling, first of all, just to have your health," Mourning said, "and second, to be able to contribute to the team. . . . I'm just excited about the opportunity that's in front of us. . . . I haven't forgotten how to play. As long as my body is healthy, which for most of the season it was until my calf injury, I'm capable of playing this game at a very high level when I'm out there. I was pretty confident going into training camp. And I knew once I passed my strength and conditioning test before camp that this season, God willing, was going to be a breeze for me."

Once weakened and thin from treatments, nothing about Mourning appears vulnerable now, not his body, not the way he launches himself to block shots or grab rebounds, not the way he flexes or scowls after an emotional play.

He's the picture of toughness. It's easy, for those so familiar with what the Washington Wizards need, to dream about Mourning ending his career in Washington. Even in his reduced role, Mourning's attitude and toughness could go a long way toward enhancing the Wizards physically and mentally.

He's still formidable, just less frequently, and much more aware. Between his physical condition, his 36 years, and the vagaries of professional basketball, there's an urgency about these next couple of weeks that are obvious. He has seen much younger players reduced in their athletic primes.

His career was altered dramatically at 30, after five all-star appearances and two league defensive player of the year honors.

"Tomorrow isn't guaranteed," he said after a recent practice. "Next year isn't guaranteed. There's no guarantee that this team will be together. Who knows? This summer Riles may make another change. We didn't expect the changes [acquiring Antoine Walker, Jason Williams and Gary Payton] he made last summer. This is a great opportunity. We should treat it as though this could be our last [season] together."

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