by Lang Whitaker

The best thing about the Miami Heat game last night was that they lost. At least, that was the highlight for me, as a Hawks fan, considering they were playing against the Hawks and all.

The worst part about the Miami Heat game last night, not only for Miami fans but for fans of basketball, was when Alonzo Mourning went down hard and started banging his fist against the floor. It was almost as though he was applying the ten count to his career.

Zo really was one of the first basketball players to come through the current big media era — remember when he was in Sports Illustrated when he was in high school? SI didn’t do stories on high school players back then (because SLAM wasn’t around to beat them to the stories yet), so when a high schooler got press in the magazine, it was a pretty big deal.

It’s crazy to think about how long ago that was. He was the second pick in the NBA Draft in 1992 (after The Diesel, who’s been playing like he blew out his knee a month ago), when I was still in high school. Remember Zo in Charlotte, teaming with LJ and Muggsy Bogues? That only lasted three seasons, and then Zo made his way to Miami. He was their centerpiece for years, until the Olympics in 2000, when Zo returned from Australia and realized something was badly wrong with his body.

Then came the kidney transplant, and for the first time the guy we all thought was such a warrior, such a beast, was all of a sudden definitely human. Against long odds, he made his way back to the NBA and signed with the Nets, where he complained about the direction of the team so much that they traded him to Toronto, where he got a buyout that allowed him to return to Miami.

When it was announced he was returning to the Heat, we were in the middle of working on SLAM 52. The Playoffs were about a month away, and we weren’t sure who to put on the cover. I went to L.A. and interviewed Shaq for that issue, and he was the leading contender for the cover, and then we heard about Zo. We put in a call, he agreed to do a photo shoot in his Heat uniform at the last minute, and it all just came together. That was Zo’s last SLAM cover.

Up through that point, I never had much interaction with Zo. He was a monster on the court, and in the locker room he always sat around looking as if he’d just had all the happiness sucked out of him by a Dementor. So I mostly avoided him, until I went to Miami in the fall of 2005 to do a Heat team story for the Shaq/Wade cover of SLAM 105. It was still the preseason. The Heat had added a bunch of dudes, from Gary Payton to Antoine Walker, and I was trying to interview as many guys from the Heat as I could. One night before a game Zo was sitting there in his locker alone, icing his knees, so I rolled up on him…

ZO, DID YOU HAVE ANY IDEA YOU GUYS WERE GOING MAKE SUCH DRAMATIC CHANGES OVER THE SUMMER?

(smiles) You never know until you know. If we’d made it to the Finals and won it last year, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. I’m sure that some changes would have been made, but I don’t think this drastically. All I do know is that each and every year some type of change is made throughout the League with every team. And we’re fortunate enough to have a guy sitting in the front office with thirty-something years of basketball experience, to where if he makes a change, we know that he’s making this change for the better based on his experience alone. Regardless of what people might say, Pat Riley has more experience than anybody in this organization. Anybody. That goes for our owner on down. Pat Riley has won championships, he’s been on championship teams. He’s seen talent, he’s coached incredible talent, so he knows what it takes to get it done. Regardless of what you guys might say about the changes that have been made, none of you guys are qualified like he is. So I trust his decision making. If he felt we needed to get better as a team, we’ll take the changes that he made, and it’s up to Stan to make it work.

PAT SAID HE’S GOING TO BE MORE INVOLVED. DO YOU THINK HE WANTS TO GET BACK INTO COACHING?

I don’t think he wants to do that. I think he just wants to be an orchestrator. He may be more verbally involved, from the standpoint that he sees something that needs to be done and he might voice his opinion a little bit more. I don’t want to speak for him, but I’m assuming if he feels as though something different needs to be done he might speak up. But if you think of Stan’s situation, I would welcome any advice that man wants to give me. I think it’s a great situation for a coach to be in. And at the same time, Riles put him in that position. He’s going to let Stan do his job.

HOW IS SHAQ LOOKING THIS SEASON?

You know what he’s bringing to the table. It’s just a matter of his body holding up. He’s predictable, but he’s unstoppable. You know what he’s going to do and you can’t do nothing about it.

HOW ARE ALL THE NEW GUYS FITTING IN?

We all want to win and we’ve had long careers. We’ve seen it all. We want to come here and bring experience and help these young fellas along, but at the same time we want to get something positive out of this season. We want to end on a good note. Gary and I have been searching for this opportunity all of our careers. I was telling Gary, you know what man, I’m glad you came because I’d have been the oldest guy on the team!

YOU’VE BEEN A CORNERSTONE IN MIAMI FOR A WHILE NOW. DO THE PEOPLE HERE SEEM MORE EXCITED ABOUT THE TEAM THIS SEASON?

The city hasn’t changed, the fans haven’t changed. The support is still the same. People are just more excited now because of the big fella and because of D-Wade. That buzz is back.

Roughly nine months later, I found myself sitting in front of Zo once again. We were in Dallas this time, in a small press room under the stands, and the Miami Heat had just won their first NBA Championship, as had Alonzo Mourning. While most of the players were still going buckwild in their locker room, Zo was brought in to talk to the media.

Most of the press members were still in the Heat’s locker room, so there were only about 10 of us (including Zo and NBA press officials) in that room, and Zo was still dripping with champagne. Nobody said anything for a minute as he sat at the table and kind of composed himself, and then Rachel Nichols asked if he ever thought he’d find himself in this situation, even through “his darkest times.”

If we really did see the Alonzo Mourning’s last NBA game last night, the thing I’ll always remember won’t be the blocked shots, having Jeff Van Gundy hang from his leg, the overwhelming physicality or the hammer dunks. What I’ll always remember will be the way Zo answered this question. It was almost as if he’d been writing this little speech in his head for his entire life. The words kept coming and coming and coming and coming. He only answered that one question, but it was a helluva answer, and then he got up and left.

This is how I’ll remember Alonzo Mourning…

ALONZO MOURNING: Oh, the darkest time was in 2000, October 3, 2000, making that announcement that I wouldn’t be playing basketball again. You know, that was probably one of the darkest moments. I was on such a high at that point in my life because we had just come back from Sydney, Australia, and we won a gold medal. I had just traveled back for the birth of my daughter. I was just on a high at that time. I was on top of the world.

It all just went crashing down when I heard that news. You know, going through — I read this book a while ago and there’s a quote in it from Frederick Douglass saying that the road to success has many obstacles, and you go through adversity. I’ve gone through my share of it throughout my life.

You know what, the good thing about going through those things, it’s just made me stronger, man. It’s made me more determined to not succumb but to overcome. And I give God all the praise, I truly do. Because without Him just giving me life again, just giving me an opportunity to live, you know, and just experience this moment, just this particular moment right here, you know, I mean, I got my cousin here, and he’s the one that 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 when — I remember laying in the hospital and just feeling like a newborn baby, truly helpless, in a lot of pain, helpless. And just to have my strength again.

A long time ago, I told somebody, I said, You know what? I will trade everything, all the money, all the material things, all the success, I would trade all of that in the world for my health right now. My health is so important to me. Without your health, you can’t live a life productively and not just do for yourself, but do for your family. It just makes me appreciate just living every moment now, even more.

And I want to share that with as many people as possible, you know, because I know I’ve been given a second chance, and I know that happened for a reason. The only way to share that particular situation is to continue to try to lift other people up in the process, and those who are going through any type of illness, those who are going through, you know, transplantation and having to deal with those type of physical obstacles in your life, you need some words of encouragement, some hope. You need that. I needed that.

I got a call from Lance Armstrong. He texted me after Game 5, he texted me. We’ve been playing phone tag because he called and spoke to my mom in Miami and wished me a happy Father’s Day and just told me “great win.” Before the series even started, he called me and was telling me, he told me that even though his heart is in Texas, he wants to see me win.

A lot of you don’t realize this, but he was a huge, huge, inspiration to me in my whole recovery period. I read both of his books after my surgery, both of them. Laying in the hospital, I was reading his second book and his first book was extremely inspiring to me.

I think about what he had to go through and literally being on his death bed. I said to myself, if he can do it, man, I can do it. And the way I looked at him, I know that there are thousands and thousands of other people that look at me the same way and I want to be here to provide them with the hope to overcome and not succumb to it. You know, that’s all you need, you need a little help and encouragement to get through. We’re human. Some people might not see me as human because of the things I do out there on the court but I’m human, I laugh, I cry, I feel pain. I’m affected by some of the things you might write or say or what have you. I’m human, you know. And what drives me is my faith, my faith in knowing that I’m going to be all right.

I know and I’ve told plenty of people this; that there are kidney patients and transplant patients and what have you that deal with all types of sicknesses and illnesses and people that approach me. I had a gentleman approach me at the hotel before the game that was dealing with some physical problems and telling me how much I’m an inspiration to him. I told him, plainly, I said, you know what, the key to you recovering is keeping this right. (Pointing to head). Keeping your mind right. Because if you keep this positive and strong, then your body is going to follow it. I never gave up up here, I never gave up up here. I credit a great deal of my recovery to that because I never gave up up here because so many people are quick to give up and say, why me, why me, and just not realizing there’s so many other people out there that has it a whole lot worse than you do. No matter how bad you got it, everybody has problems, everybody has problems, regardless of how bad you have it, somebody else out there has it worse. Think about that. Sit back and think about that, you know. That’s what drives me.