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."
Any team that plays for Riley is made constantly aware of the stakes, of the rewards and consequences. But does it mean more to Mourning, given all he's been through since 2000?
"It does," he said. "And it's hard to explain to these guys because the only way they would understand it is to walk in my shoes. And that's virtually impossible. I do know this: Nothing is promised to you. Your time on the court is not promised to you even though you think it might be. These young guys coming into the league don't understand that as soon as they step on the floor a clock starts. It starts ticking. And none of us knows when it's going to stop. Ask Bobby Hurley. Ask [Jay] Williams. Ask those guys. You don't know when your career is going to end. So you have to approach situations like this as, 'Man, this could be my last opportunity . . . to play for something special.' So, that's my mentality."
Hurley, 34, never got the chance to play for something special after a horrific automobile accident during his rookie season, and last played in the NBA in 1997-98. Meantime, Williams -- like Hurley, a former Duke all-American -- is still trying to recover and catch on after a motorcycle accident following his rookie season.
Mourning is happy, and says so, that something as important to him as this playoff stretch is in Riley's hands. He came to Miami, largely, because of Riley. Both have lived for challenges, lived for the grueling practices.
And now each has a second chance at trying to win a championship -- an unforeseen chance, really.
"I know what he brings to the table from a knowledge standpoint," Mourning said. "He's seen so many games, situations, what have you. The decisions he makes during games, the adjustments he makes after games are born of what he's seen before. You combine that with the fact that we've got a team full of veteran players, some of whom have been in NBA Finals and conference finals, and that should mean a pretty high success rate. We've fallen into our roles. If we bring an effort each and every game, it's going to be hard to beat us. Very hard."
Asked what's different about Riley, Mourning can identify one primary thing: The killer practices Riley used to conduct late in the season and during the playoffs are over.
"On a day like today," he said, "we'd have gone extremely hard in the past. I think he has admitted to [the media] and he's admitted to us that he has had to make an adjustment in that part of the game, of his approach to it was unnecessary. Looking back, he [says] he can honestly say that it might have been a detriment. And I totally agree. I was playing 40-some minutes a game. So, I think his approach from a practice standpoint is very different."
Riley wouldn't have admitted that in the early years and Mourning probably wouldn't have wanted him to. Of this new role, the coach said of Mourning: "His role is that he's a leader. He's backing up Shaq, sparing him minutes. So Zo's playing segmented minutes and probably three minutes or four minutes at the most. He's capable of making plays for us, but he's been a leader, a great leader for us and a great backup center right now for Shaq."