Alonzo Mourning had heard all the stories about Georgetown University's mountain of a basketball coach, John Thompson. He had heard that Thompson admonished his players with a lava-spitting vocabulary. He had heard that Thompson forced his players to climb unclimbable academic heights. He had heard that Thompson regulated his players as though they were so many Himalayan monks. All of which made Mourning wonder: Did he, the most-sought high school basketball player in America, really want any part of being a Georgetown Hoya?

Thompson knew what Mourning was thinking last Nov. 7 when they met, 6-foot-10 player and 6-foot-10 coach, on the Georgetown campus. "Alonzo had been told a lot of frightening things by our opposition," Thompson recalled. "He had

been told that I would not let him go out to parties, that our kids are in prison, that they can't go out, they can't do anything. Ignorant stuff that I resented an awful lot. So I told Alonzo, 'There are a lot of wild and stupid rumors about us. If there are any questions that you have, you direct those questions to me.' "

Mourning did -- and he was mightily impressed with Thompson's answers. But a week still remained until he would choose a school, and Georgetown was no shoo-in. For two months, he had been weighing the pros and cons of five universities: Maryland, Virginia, Syracuse, Georgetown and Georgia Tech. Only several days earlier, Mourning had said of Maryland: "They're building a dynasty over there. I can see it in the players' eyes." But he wasn't so sure he wanted to be a Terrapin, either.

"It's difficult, trying to pick a school, because I'm getting advice from all different directions," Mourning said at the time. "Everybody is telling me, 'I think my school is better.' So instead of listening to a teacher in class, I'll be daydreaming about, 'Wow, man. This is a big decision. What am I going to do?' It's confusing."

Confusion is the norm for a 17-year-old who can score and rebound and block shots with the reliability of an Alonzo Mourning. And after two years of being told by college recruiters that he was the answer to a basketball coach's dreams, Mourning couldn't help but wonder if maybe, just maybe, they were right.

"Alonzo is floating, literally floating," his coach, Bill Lassiter of Indian River High in Chesapeake, Va., said one afternoon last fall. Earlier in the day, Mourning had said he was considering the possibility of someday writing a book. About himself. "By floating, I mean that Alonzo may have lost a correct perspective on some things he's been exposed to," Lassiter said. "Alonzo's on Cloud Nine. But when you consider what he's been through, I think that's quite normal. Don't you think?"

Alonzo Mourning's journey to the clouds began in the summer of 1986 when he was invited to the Five Star Basketball Camp in Pittsburgh. For almost two years, college recruiters had been hearing about a tall kid from southeastern Virginia who supposedly answered to the nickname Good Mourning. "Everybody used to joke about the Myth of Alonzo Mourning," Frank Marino, a Five Star coach, recalled. "But it wasn't until we saw him play that summer that everybody realized that Alonzo Mourning is the big man who will take you to the places that you want to go."

As a junior, Mourning took Indian River to the state championship, averaging 21.8 points, 11 rebounds and 9.6 blocked shots a game. Aware that every college coach from California to Carolina was on his way, Lassiter asked recruiters to refrain from phoning Mourning at his home. "We want Alonzo's life to be as normal as possible," Lassiter said.

Marino, a Bronx, N.Y., middle-school teacher and former college assistant coach, was one of the few people to have Mourning's unlisted number. "We'd talk to each other once every three weeks, once a month," Marino said. "Alonzo and I became friends."

Mourning's closest confidant, though, was Lassiter, a soft-spoken Kentucky State graduate who describes himself as a "small-time, small-town coach." Lassiter often encouraged Mourning to bear down on his schoolwork, reminding him that to be eligible to play basketball as a college freshman he had to maintain a 2.0 average and score at least 700 (out of a possible 1,600) on the Scholastic Aptitude Test.

But when he took the SAT last June, he failed to achieve a 700 score, Lassiter said. "Mostly, I had problems with the verbal part {of the exam}," Mourning said. "It's mainly from the way you're brought up. Look at it this way: a lot of black athletes have low SAT scores. I don't know why. I guess it's because of their backgrounds. It just happens."

Lassiter, who is black, had a different explanation for the low score. "Alonzo being highly exposed, there was a lot of activity going on when he took the test, and he did not prepare for the test at all," he said. "The attention that was shown to Alonzo in the very early part of his high school basketball career caused him to get to the point of feeling very important. If you feel very important in one aspect of your life, then something else is going to go lagging."

It was a busy summer for Mourning, as he attended three all-star camps (two operated by Five Star, one by Nike) and traveled with Virginia's Amateur Athletic Union team to tournaments in Jacksonville, Los Angeles and Las Vegas. In one game, he blocked 27 shots, an AAU record. "You had to be there to believe it," said Mourning's AAU coach, Marcellus (Boo) Williams. "In one series alone, he blocked five shots. It was unbelievable."

At each camp and tournament, college recruiters made their presence known to Mourning. Under NCAA rules they could not have face-to-face conversations with him, but casual face-to-face contacts were permitted. "The coaches let me know they were around," Mourning said. "I was getting a lot of winks."

John Thompson, not an easy figure to overlook, attended the tournaments in Las Vegas and Los Angeles and the Nike camp in Princeton, N.J. He had met Mourning a year earlier when the player stopped by his office during an AAU tournament on the Georgetown campus.

"I went into Coach Thompson's office and started looking at all the pictures on his wall," Mourning said. "He had a big picture of him standing beside a slot machine that had '$1,000,000' on it. So I asked Coach Thompson, 'Did you win that?' And he said, 'That's what the picture says.' He told me that he likes pulling slots. He said that's one of his enjoyments."

Even more memorable for Mourning, though, was the opportunity to meet former Georgetown all-America Patrick Ewing. "Just meeting him, I got a kick out of it," Mourning said. "We had like a friend-to-friend conversation."

Mourning saw the New York Knicks center again last summer at the Nike camp. "I was doing stretching exercises and Patrick came up and said, 'Hi, how you doing?' " Mourning said. "I was surprised to see him." Thompson wasn't. "Patrick didn't show up at that Nike camp by accident," he said. "Patrick showed up because he could be there and because Alonzo Mourning has a feeling for Patrick." Score one for Georgetown.

In Princeton, Mourning also established a friendship with John (Sonny) Vaccaro, a 48-year-old consultant to Nike. Vaccaro made no secret of the fact that his best friend happens to be John Thompson. "I never hid that," Vaccaro said. "I told Alonzo up front."

Vaccaro said he did not attempt to recruit Mourning for Thompson, mainly because he did not want to alienate his other coaching friends. Through Vaccaro, Nike has consultancy agreements with about 60 college coaches, including Thompson. "Sonny doesn't endorse me intentionally or aggressively," Thompson has said. "But he does endorse me by the fact that we're friends."

As the summer progressed, Mourning saw more of Vaccaro. In Las Vegas one afternoon, the Nike promoter took Mourning and three of his AAU teammates to lunch in a casino hotel. On the way to the coffee shop, Mourning spotted a familiar figure.

"It was Big John," Mourning recalled. "He was right there playing the slots."

"I said to Alonzo, 'Next to winning the national championship, the only thing Coach Thompson would enjoy more would be to hit the jackpot with the slots,' " Vaccaro said.

Although Mourning was getting a favorable impression of Thompson, he had no clear favorite among the schools he was considering. Virginia was appealing because it was close to home. The Syracuse and Georgia Tech basketball programs were on a roll. Maryland was on its way up. And Georgetown, well, Georgetown is Georgetown.

Marino, the Five Star coach, said he refrained from offering an opinion to Mourning until the fall of '86 when Bob Wade, a highly successful coach at Baltimore's Dunbar High, accepted the job at Maryland.

"I told Alonzo, 'I'd love to see you go to Maryland. I think you'd be happy there,' " Marino said.

Marino said he based the recommendation on his long-term friendship with Wade.

"I told Alonzo, 'Bob is so much more than a guy who just had a bunch of great players at Dunbar High School,' " Marino recalled. "I said, 'No. 1, he's a gentleman. He's educated. He's a man of great distinction and accomplishment. He's very impressive. He can be a leader. He will educate you. Bob Wade measures up in my book.' "

Marino said he spoke to Wade on several occasions about Mourning.

"You know I'm your guy, I'm your friend," Marino said he once told Wade. "If you tell me, 'Frank, use your influence. Frank, go charging in there and do something that {the Maryland coaching staff} can't by the rules,' I'll do that for you."

In the end, Marino said he never was called upon to go charging in. Wade declined in an interview to discuss any aspect of Mourning's recruitment. "Anything dealing with recruiting I will not discuss in the media," he said.

Beginning in mid-September, Mourning invited the head coaches from the five finalists to his home. Bobby Cremins (Georgia Tech) came first. Then Terry Holland (Virginia), followed by Wade, Jim Boeheim (Syracuse) and Thompson. "The only thing that stood out was when John Thompson spoke about the Olympic team," Mourning remembered. "He was telling me he had watched me over the summer . . . to see if I had the attitude and if I could adjust to different parts of the game to make the Olympics."

Mourning said that was the first time anyone had suggested that he might make the Olympic team. "I was kind of shocked at first," he said.

Did Mourning believe he would have a better chance of making the 1988 team if he signed with Thompson, the U.S. Olympic basketball coach? Mourning paused to consider the question, then nodded. "It probably would enhance my chance," he said.

Having met the coaches, Mourning turned his attention to the campuses. Under NCAA rules, he could make one 48-hour all-expenses-paid visit to each school. Mourning recalled that the weekend jaunts often left him breathless, as he was ushered from one party to the next and then to -- well, here's his play-by-play of each visit:

Virginia (Oct. 2-4): Flew to Charlottesville in small plane that "wobbled as it went up." Was guest at party that "seemed like it lasted all night." Toured campus. Attended tailgate party and football homecoming game. "I heard a lot of people call out my name at the game." Went to another party. "Stayed there all night." Had breakfast at Terry Holland's house. "His little daughter showed me her pet snake." Heard Holland's pitch. "He told me that Virginia was a nice school academically and he thought I could fit in there. Just the usual. Everybody talks about the same thing."

Syracuse (Oct. 16-18): "Long layover" at New York City's LaGuardia Airport. Met at Syracuse airport by "oh, what's his name? Morgan. The assistant coach, Wayne Morgan." Went out with "the fellas" to couple of parties. Toured campus. Saw football game. Heard fans call out his name. "I'm pretty used to it." Off to another party. "I go to sleep late on all my trips." Listened to Boeheim's pitch. "He told me the same thing Coach Holland told me." Two-hour layover at Washington's National Airport on way home. Passed time listening to tape of rap singer Eric B.

Maryland (Oct. 23-25): Loved banner in Cole Field House: MARYLAND DAWNS A. (NEW) MOURNING. Attended game between Bullets and Lakers. Went to party. "Got back to the hotel kind of late." Room at Greenbelt Hilton had phone and TV set in bathroom. Toured campus. Saw homecoming football game. Introduced to "a lot of important people," including "ah, what's his name? He played for the Bullets. Tall. McMillen. Tom McMillen." Joined Steve Hood and several other Maryland players at a dance show at Cole Field House. Pointed out banner to several girls at the show. Girls didn't believe A. (NEW) MOURNING referred to him. "So I said to Steve Hood, 'Yo. Tell them what my last name is.' "

Georgia Tech (Oct. 30-Nov. 1): Stayed at luxurious Peachtree Plaza. Attended Anita Baker concert. Met Baker backstage. Toured campus. Went partying with Georgia Tech players. Bumped into Dominique Wilkins and Spud Webb at club called Atlanta Nights. "And a lot of the other Hawks players were there." Didn't call it a night. "Went to another club called Phoenix." Bought shoes at a Big Man's store. "It's hard to find my size." 17.

Georgetown (Nov. 7-9): Stayed in a Georgetown dorm. "Coach Thompson told me, if I was to come to school there, I would be staying with the players, so why not put me in with the players during my visit?" Had brunch with Thompson and academic counselor Mary Fenlon. Was impressed with postgraduation success of Georgetown players. Attended Howard University homecoming party in downtown D.C. Spoke with Thompson about his Attila the Coach reputation.

Mourning had heard most of the Attila talk from players at rival colleges. "They'd told me Coach Thompson had a curfew and that I wouldn't be able to go to parties at Georgetown," he recalled. "I thought, 'This is wild.' So I went right to the main source."

Thompson didn't spit lava when he heard Mourning's concerns. "It's very easy to see what a 17- or 19-year-old's priorities are," he said. "His priority is, 'Damn, I want to have a good time in college.' So he asks people, 'Can they go to a party {at Georgetown}?' And he is told, 'Oh, my goodness, Thompson isn't going to let you go to a party. Now, you know how they are!' "

Thompson assured Mourning that he does not have a curfew or prohibition against partying. "These are not children, these are young men," Thompson would later explain. "They understand what we stand for and what we want done. Now, if democracy breaks down, the dictator takes over. And I'm the dictator."

With the visits done, Lassiter informed the finalists that Mourning would announce his decision on Sunday, Nov. 15. Although the coaches were no longer allowed to see Mourning, they were each given two opportunities to call him during the week of Nov. 9.

In the middle of that week, Wade heard a rumor that Vaccaro -- Thompson's buddy -- had checked into a hotel in Chesapeake. The rumor was true.

Vaccaro said he went to Chesapeake to visit Lassiter, who had been a coach at the Nike camp the previous two summers, and to finalize a sponsorship deal with Mourning's summer league team. Vaccaro had already given Lassiter 35 pair of top-of-the-line Nike shoes and 15 travel bags for his high school team.

"Getting Alonzo Mourning to wear Nikes is an ego thing for me," Vaccaro said. "Just an ego thing."

Vaccaro also had selected Lassiter to coach the East team at the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic in Pittsburgh, which he founded and still oversees. But coaches such as Wade had other thoughts about Vaccaro's presence in Chesapeake. "Everybody in the world thought I was down there to recruit Alonzo for John Thompson," Vaccaro said. "But I didn't even see Alonzo while I was there."

After leaving Chesapeake, Vaccaro received a message to call Wade. "Bob asked, 'Did you see Alonzo?' " Vaccaro recalled. "I said, 'Bob, I was there. But I never saw or talked to the kid.' "

Thompson said he never asked Vaccaro to go to Chesapeake. "I'm not the smartest person who ever lived but I'm not the dumbest either," he said. "If I was to send him down there, that would be the dumbest thing . . . this being such a gossip business."

On the evening of Friday, Nov. 13, Mourning met with Lassiter to summarize the entire recruitment process. "That was the end of my job," Lassiter said. "On Sunday, he would announce his decision."

On Saturday, Lassiter did not hear from Mourning. "I didn't eat all day," Lassiter said. "I wasn't ill. It was just a matter of wondering, 'What's going to happen next? Is he going to call? Should I call him?' "

"I stayed home on Saturday and thought about my future," Mourning said. "I thought about where I would fit in and where I would be comfortable at. I looked at the players who had come out of each of these programs and how far they have gone in life."

At one point, Mourning said, Georgia Tech had been his No. 1 pick. "I liked Atlanta." At another point, Maryland had been tops. "They're building a dynasty over there." And then there was Georgetown. "I liked how Coach Thompson gets along with his players. He's been there."

On Sunday afternoon, Mourning phoned each of the coaches with his decision. But when Thompson came on the line, Mourning spoke only of the difficulty he'd had informing the other coaches of his choice.

"This is one of the hardest things I've ever had to do in my life," Mourning told Thompson. "But, so far, the coaches have been very nice."

Thompson could not take the suspense any longer.

"Well," he boomed, "where are you going to school?"

"Oh," Mourning said, "I'm going to Georgetown."

That day Mourning also phoned Vaccaro with his decision. "Sonny was real happy," Mourning recalled. "When I called him to tell him I was going to Georgetown, he screamed, like he was saying 'yeh!' "

Did Vaccaro have any influence on Mourning's decision?

No, said Mourning.

No, said Vaccaro.

"I hope that my relationship with Sonny helped me with Alonzo Mourning because Sonny is my friend," Thompson said. "But I don't think in any way Sonny aggressively went down there for the sole purpose of trying to out-and-out recruit Alonzo Mourning for John Thompson."

If the player they call Good Mourning is still floating, that's to be expected, because it has been a good year. Mourning learned in December that he scored 830 on his second attempt at the SAT. "I feel great," he said. Fifteen games into his senior season, he was averaging 25 points, 15 rebounds and 11 blocked shots per game for an undefeated team. And, if all goes well, Mourning could become the youngest U.S. basketball player to participate in an Olympic game. "If Alonzo can go to an Olympic tryout and be a contributor, I'll want to recommend him," Thompson said recently. "I don't have the final say but certainly I have a lot of influence on it."

Oh, about that book.

The one Mourning has considered writing. About himself.

One afternoon last fall, a reporter asked Mourning, who lives with a foster parent, if he would be willing to discuss his childhood. Mourning politely declined, saying "that's kind of personal." Then he added: "Maybe I might want to save it for a book. I mean, you know, Kareem came out with his book, 'Giant Steps,' telling about his background. I might want to do something like that, tell about my life history."

Mourning will need a few more chapters before his autobiography is ready to roll. But there is time. Today, he turns 18. "Alonzo thinks the hard part is over," Lassiter said. "But for Alonzo Mourning the hard part really has only begun."