Beyond a Title, a Celebration of Life

By Michael Wilbon
Thursday, June 22, 2006

DALLAS It was the only quiet place within 200 yards on either side of the Miami Heat champagne celebration, the little room where Alonzo Mourning was talking. He had just completed a life-threatening journey from the agony of a kidney transplant to the thrill of a championship victory, and it was time to let it pour out. So Mourning let it pour, straight from his gut, and nobody dared interrupt him, lest it ruin a moving monologue that started with the agony.

"The darkest time," he began, "was October 3, 2000, making that announcement that I wouldn't be playing basketball again. I was on such a high at that point in my life because we had just come back from [the 2000 Summer Olympics in] Sydney, Australia, and we had won the gold medal. I had just traveled back for the birth of my daughter. I was on top of the world. It all just came crashing down when I heard the news." He had had focal glomerulosclerosis diagnosed, a potentially fatal kidney disorder that required treatment, then the transplant.

"I read this book a while ago and in it there's this quote from Frederick Douglass, saying that the road to success has many obstacles, and you go through adversity," Mourning said. "I've gone through my share of it throughout my life. You know what? The good thing about going through those things is it made me a stronger man. It's made me more determined not to succumb but to overcome. I got my cousin here, and he's the one who donated the kidney to me. Words can't explain how grateful I am to him. I owe my life to him just saving me. I remember laying in the hospital and just feeling like a newborn baby, truly helpless, in a lot of pain and helpless."

Mourning stopped playing then, more than five years ago, and it seemed at the time he would never play again. It looked like he would have to let go of championship basketball dreams after all the years of coming up short with Charlotte and then Miami. Playoff games and all-star appearances were replaced with hospital stays and doctor visits. He lost weight, lots of it.

Treatments were exhausting and painful, and that was before the transplant, which always threatens life. So playing 14 minutes, scoring eight points, grabbing six rebounds and blocking five shots to help his team win a championship on Tuesday night was as dramatic a swing in fortunes as Mourning could imagine.

"I told somebody a long time ago that I would trade everything, all the money and all the material things and all the success. I would trade all of that for my health. Without your health, you can't live your life productively," Mourning said. "It makes me appreciate just living every moment even more. And I want to share that with as many people as possible because I know I've been given a second chance and that happened for a reason. The only way to share that particular thing is to continue to try to lift other people, those who are going through any type of illness [like] transplantation or physical obstacles. You might need some words of encouragement, some hope. I needed that."

Most people don't think of Mourning as a sentimental favorite because of his menacing appearance over the years, the flexing and the scowling. But warm and fuzzy is all he's been off the court, especially as he's extended himself these recent years and as others have found him a source of inspiration. People who don't know jack about basketball were rooting for Mourning these last few weeks. When he finished his postgame comments, hardened and cynical newspeople not only dabbed at tears, but many applauded.

"I got a call from Lance Armstrong," he said. "He text [messaged] me after Game 5. We've been playing phone tag because he called and spoke to my mom in Miami and wished me a happy Father's Day. Before the series even started he called me and was telling me that even though his heart is in Texas he wanted to see me win. . . . He was a huge, huge inspiration to me in my whole recovery period. I read both of his books after my surgery. Laying in the hospital I was reading his second book. I think about what he had to go through [in his fight against cancer], literally being on his deathbed. I said to myself, 'If he can do it, I can do it.' And the way I looked at him, I know there are thousands and thousands of people who look at me that same way, and I want to be here to provide them with the hope to overcome and not succumb. . . .

"There are kidney patients and transplant patients who have to deal with all types of illnesses, and people approach me. I had a gentleman approach me at the hotel before the game who was dealing with some physical problems and telling me how much I am an inspiration to him. I told him, plainly, the key to recovering is keeping this right." Mourning pointed to his head. "If you keep this positive and strong, your body is going to follow."

See, if you want to know the difference between Miami and Dallas in this series, it relates to strong heads. Miami has plenty of them, from Pat Riley to Shaq to D. Wade to Gary Payton to, of course, 'Zo. Miami is loaded with stubborn, headstrong, prideful men who have been through various trials and tribulations and at this point of their lives know exactly how to close out an opponent. The Mavericks, as we saw in Game 3, do not.

When they saw a headline in one of the Dallas newspapers calling the Heat an "Unworthy" opponent after the first couple of games, the Miami players seriously took offense. Before many others caught on, Wade, who is something of a techie, was online and got a whiff of city officials planning a celebration after the first two games of the series: "They'd already set up They already had their parade route and everything."

Miami's players and coaches didn't like that, either. They weren't gently letting go of anything as important as a championship, given what they'd been through individually, given such stubborn mules as Riley and Mourning, who set the tone for the locker room and team meetings and huddles during the timeouts of games. Riley says of Mourning, "We are fused at the hip," which is probably the highest praise imaginable from basketball's Mr. Tough.

What we know about Miami is that the Heat players have their heads right, as 'Zo would say. His teammates were thrilled he can call himself a champion now. Remember, Mourning never reached the Final Four as a college player at Georgetown and never played for a championship until this season. Now he is a champion, the first of John Thompson's wondrous big men to win an NBA championship. Notably and hardly surprising, Patrick Ewing and Dikembe Mutombo traveled to Miami to root for Mourning.

So now what?

"My doctor told me I could have a drink . . . in moderation," Mourning said.

"And to tell the truth I haven't had a drink since 2000, since I was diagnosed. I gave it all up. I used to drink beers with my boys, but I haven't had a drink since then. But I think my doctor would give me a doctor's note for the day. He'll give me a note for the day, a pass."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company