Road to success leads Alonzo Mourning to Hall of Fame

He built the Miami Heat from a franchise on the fringes of the NBA power structure to a perennial contender. He was ferocious, aggressive, and relentless. He lost it all, left, and came back to become a champion. This weekend he will be officially announced as a member of the Hall of Fame.

The first whispers were heard last Wednesday, if "whisper" is the right word for rumors being circulated to thousands of people via Twitter.

Unconfirmed, the reports indicated that Alonzo Mourning would be inducted into the James Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame. I was conflicted and ecstatic, mostly the latter. I knew a story would have to be written on Mourning - or "Zo" to fans of the NBA - so I surprised myself by volunteering to write one that sums up his amazing career.

The ups-and-downs, the intense scowling, the kidney disease that almost ended his career just as it reached its peak.

I tried to make it an exercise in minimalism, thinking of words to best describe Zo. Two stood out; one his choice, the other mine, but both seemed fitting.

Resilience. Betrayal.

Here's the story.

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Alonzo Mourning was 10 years old when he told the State of Virginia he didn't want to live with his mother and father any more.

Think about that: at an age when most kids are concerned with the Saturday morning cartoon lineup, Mourning decided that living in a group home was a better environment than living with his parents. An intensely private man throughout his basketball career, Zo revealed the details of the decision in his autobiography, Resilience:

"Looking back, I can say I was a very self-aware young man. I don't know why. I don't know how. But I was. I looked at the situation at home, I looked at how it was affecting me and how it was a potential threat to me succeeding in life and I knew, I just knew, in my ten-year-old mind, that I needed to do something for myself."

He made a decision - beyond Cocoa Puffs or Rice Krispies, far greater than Tom and Jerry or Bugs Bunny - that most adults would find impossible to make. To do what he needed to succeed.

He met his greatest influence in foster care, Fannie Threet. She was both a tough and gentle woman in her fifties, a neighborhood saint in suburban Chesapeake, who had raised 49 children when Mourning joined her home. Some of them were her biological children, others were adopted but most were foster kids.

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And they were all raised the same and so lovingly that, as Mourning said, "She was a mother to anyone who came into her home."

He stayed in contact with his parents, as they tried to reconcile their relationship. They soon welcomed Mourning's sister, Tamara, but a divorce was inevitable. Zo was a part of that family, even as splintered as it was, and cared for them all dearly.

But Threet's house - and especially the love and discipline he received - was what he needed to thrive.

Soon "Mrs. Threet" became "Mom" and Zo, a football fanatic, grew too tall to play anything else but basketball. He dominated the sport, led his high school to a state title as a junior and was a consensus All-American and the Player of the Year by USA Today, Gatorade, and Parade magazine.

He didn't ever want to leave Threet, and never really would, but it was time to move on if he was to ever succeed. He enrolled in nearby Georgetown University, just under three hours away.

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John Thompson, retired from coaching, looked admiringly at his former player who was now an NBA star, and marveled at a left-handed hook shot Mourning unleashed against the New York Knicks.

"When Alonzo first got to Georgetown," said Thompson in a voice like crushed granite, "he couldn't use his left to swat a fly off his ass."

Zo was unquestionably raw when he first joined the Hoyas. Athletic and powerful, but very much an unfished product.

"He had a stubbornness about him," Thompson said. "Stubbornness isn't bad as long as you know who's in charge."

It seems unlikely that Thompson, an imposing man that stands 6'10" and weighs nearly 300 pounds, would ever be anything but "in charge."

Mourning confirmed that by adding, "Fear helped a lot too."

It was the right combination of emotions: arguments are unavoidable but it was the tough love that helped get Mourning this far, first with Threet and now with Thompson.

Paired with a fellow future NBA player named Dikembe Mutombo, the "M & M Boys" were part of very successful campaigns for Georgetown, although a national championship was never the end result.

But Mourning still cites Thompson as one of the most influential people in his life, a father figure that helped develop a tireless work ethic and devotion to defense that would be the calling cards of a future NBA career.

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His graduation in 1992 is still one of the greatest moments of his career.

"To be the first person in my family to graduate from college and to be there with the people that supported me," said Mourning, "that was the best moment."

The two-time All-American and 1992 Defensive Player of the Year, Zo was chosen 2nd overall in the NBA Draft by the Charlotte Hornets.

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Larry Johnson was the 1991-1992 NBA Rookie of the Year, an honor with which the recipient was awarded a leather coat. Johnson flashed the jacket like the gold-capped tooth in his gapped smile while he looked at Mourning.

"Hey, young fellow, if you play real hard you might get one of these jackets."

It was a joke that Hornets teammates laughed at, everyone except Mourning of course, and it was the beginning of the end.

The relationship with Johnson and Zo, two young alpha-male athletes, was always strained, although brushed aside with surprising professionalism while on the court. They were both great players, expected to lead the expansion Hornets team into an era of playoff success.

Images of Johnson, Mourning and diminutive point guard Tyrone "Mugsy" Bogues evoked feelings of a basketball family, albeit ripe with dysfunction.

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But the battle for supremacy, to sit at the head of the locker room table, was too intense and the "family" dissolved after only three years.

In 1995, Alonzo was represented by super-agent David Falk, whose client list included fellow Hoya alum Patrick Ewing and a recently-retired player by the name of Michael Jordan. Falk demanded the Hornets pay Mourning up to $13 million a year, quite a sum at the time. Charlotte's counter-offer was for $2 million less.

A trade was requested and granted to another expansion team that joined the NBA in 1988, the Miami Heat.

The Heat had achieved some mild success, making the playoffs only to be eliminated by Jordan's Chicago teams during their first three-peat. A change was in order and new owner Micky Arison was determined to start at the top. He hired Pat Riley - still under contract with the New York Knicks - to be his President of Basketball Operations and Head Coach.

The Knicks had been fearsome challengers to the Bulls in the early 90's, a team that negated Jordan's and Scottie Pippen's basketball artistry with rough, physical play. It wasn't enough though, and the Knicks made only one trip to the NBA Finals in 1994 - the first year of the post-Jordan era.

But Riley had adapted his coaching and personnel moves from his first stint as a head coach, with the "Showtime" era Los Angeles Lakers. He needed a center, a big man in the pivot that would be the focal point on offense and defense.

Riley's first move was to fax his letter of resignation to Madison Square Garden. His second move was to acquire Mourning.

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Pat Riley was slumped over his desk, his expensive coat cast aside and his fingers holding up his perfectly-gelled hair, when he felt Mourning's huge hands grab him by the shoulders and pull him into the air.

Riley had lost before, but never did it feel this empty. This from a man that famously said, "There is winning and there is misery."

Following a third consecutive playoff elimination by the Knicks, Riley had not been able to make eye-contact with his own players. A man that was capable of inspiring millionaire athletes to run through a wall for him, was suddenly left speechless.

He collapsed in his office within the bowels of AmericanAirlines Arena when Zo brought his coach to his feet, looked at him and said, "They need you out there."

The Heat totaled 42 wins in the 1995-1996 season, the first of the Riley-Zo era. They went on to win 61 the next season and over 60% of all their games over the next four seasons.

In that time, Mourning had developed into the one of the game's best players. With Thompson, Zo had stopped crawling and taken his first baby steps. Under Riley, Mourning had learned how to run.

Rebounding with ferocity, protecting the painted era fearlessly, and even scoring over 20 points per game. He was an All-Star, an elite defender, and a force on the court.

But New York always stood in the way of championship success.

It was the best rivalry of the mid- to late-90's. Every second of every game, a battle to advance in the playoffs. Mourning even squared off famously against Johnson, now with the Knicks, a scuffle that ended with New York head coach Jeff Van Gundy hanging on to Zo's tree-trunk leg.

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After five seasons together, Riley would be the one inspired by Mourning that day in his office; he'd stumble through a speech and half-heartedly tell them that next year would be another opportunity.

The tandem of Mourning and Riley wouldn't get a chance at a title for another six years.

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In the summer of 2000, Mourning looked at his leg and noticed it was swollen and puffy. He pushed into it and saw it had left a discolored indentation. A trainer with the USA Men's Basketball team at the Sydney Olympics suggested having it checked out.

Mourning would win a gold medal, return home to be with his wife, son and his newborn daughter, and instead of seeking medical advice, would attack the problem the same he always did.

He went through a grueling four-hour workout at the Heat's training facilities. "I just need to sweat it out," he told himself.

After passing out in a friend's car, it was obvious that the symptoms could not be solved by running sprints or lifting 100-pound dumbbells. Mourning visited a doctor, tests were conducted and the results sent his life and his career into a tailspin.

The diagnosis revealed the presence of focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, a disease which impacted his kidneys. Doctors first told Mourning a transplant would be needed. A second diagnosis led to another prescribed treatment; medication - and not a transplant - could help.

He underwent the treatment, battling and fighting as he always had, and missed most of the 2000-2001 season. After a five-month absence, Mourning returned to the court. He played through the following season, even making the 2002 NBA All-Star team. But his condition worsened during the summer and he sat out the entirety of the ‘02-‘03 season.

He did get better as that lost year progressed. But Miami's record plummeted to 25-67, the Heat missed the playoffs for the second time in a row, and the franchise - and franchise player - were at a crossroads.

Riley, ever the pragmatist, wanted his superstar back if he was healthy. Mourning's contract expired and after 10 years in the NBA, he needed a taste of championship success.

In a shocking move, Zo would sign a four-year deal with the New Jersey Nets. The Nets had outbid teams like San Antonio and Boston for his services; plus they had just been eliminated in the NBA Finals.

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Mourning saw himself as the missing piece to the Nets' championship puzzle, one which was never completed.

A title was in his future but he'd have to win it as a complementary player with another team with championship aspirations.

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Those two words - resilience and betrayal - hold extra meaning when looking at Mourning's life and career in basketball.

To persevere through the adversity of his childhood, the broken homes and the unbreakable dreams, and to continue playing the game he loved despite his physical deterioration, is nothing short of admirable. It is the very definition of resiliency, the word Mourning himself used to describe his incredible life.

The betrayal, however, is two-fold and not as easy to accept.

After signing with New Jersey, Mourning was failed by his kidneys once again. He retired from basketball after it became clear he needed the transplant after all. Luckily, he found a match.

But his choice to leave Miami in the first place took me years to look past.

He left the franchise that made him a superstar and that surrounded him with the necessary players to win a championship.

He joined the Nets - a team led by Jason Kidd that was too fast-paced for Mourning's half-court excellence - and instead I focused on my sense of betrayal.

It was selfish and thoughtless, as fans often are with their players and their teams. In retrospect, it was even shameful.

A surprising thing happened, then, when the Nets experiment failed and he was traded to (and promptly waived by) the Toronto Raptors. He rejoined Miami, now built around a young, burgeoning superstar named Dwyane Wade and an aging powerhouse in Shaquille O'Neal, a former nemesis of Mourning's.

His role would be complementary, limited and sporadic. And Mourning, perhaps a bit wiser following the organ transplant, embraced it completely.

He did the same things he'd always done, just in limited minutes. Rebound, dunk ferociously and, of course, block shots around the basket. Heat fans - or at least this particular fan - welcomed him back.

That sense of betrayal was soon erased, swatted away like Mourning's frequent blocks. As the title chase began in earnest, and with Riley once again at the helm, I found myself hoping that Zo would get the title he so deserved. O'Neal had his rings, Wade would get other chances but for Mourning, this was his last, best chance.

And he got it in 2006. Six years of therapy and surgery, of leaving and coming back, and he was finally a champion.

During his post-game press conference, Mourning - always scowling and flexing his cartoonish muscles - was reduced to a child-like innocence and joy that he had never displayed. He'd allowed himself some celebratory champagne, his first taste of alcohol after his original diagnosis six years before.

He was smiling and it felt so real and true that we couldn't help but smile along with him.

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Mourning referenced Frederick Douglass in a long, winding speech that is Zo at his most honest and open. He remembered reading that Douglass had once explained that "the road to success has many obstacles."

Mourning's tireless effort - his resiliency - helped him overcome numerous challenges. His road to success led him to become a champion and it's the lasting image that I'll have of him, and it's the one that suits him best.

Alonzo's road has now led him to Springfield, Massachusetts, and a place in the Hall of Fame. And no one - not me and certainly not Mourning - will feel the slightest bit betrayed by the honor.

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