33: Rise of an Empire


Originally published in SLAM 178

by Thomas Golianopoulos

All the superstar centers of the 1990s had their trademark moves, their defining characteristics, that certain je ne sais quoi. Hakeem Olajuwon had the Dream Shake. Patrick Ewing had the fadeaway. Shaquille O’Neal was stronger than the rest of his peers. David Robinson was more agile. Alonzo Mourning didn’t have touch like Hakeem or Patrick and wasn’t as physically gifted as Shaq or the Admiral. His thing, his greatest attribute, was his heart, his grit and his passion.

It made the Chesapeake (VA) Indian River product an All-American at Georgetown, the No. 2 pick in the ’92 NBA Draft, a seven-time All-Star, a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, an Olympic Gold medalist, and finally, after years of Playoff heartbreak, an NBA Champion with the Miami Heat. Mourning’s greatest accomplishment, though, was his comeback from a life-threatening kidney disease, which later led to a kidney transplant. Now healthy, Mourning is the VP of Player Programs and Development for the Heat.

We caught up with Mourning recently to discuss all the highs and lows from his life in basketball: the rumored rivalry with Larry Johnson, the very real rivalry with the NY Knicks, his illness, his Championship and the state of NBA big men today. Let’s say this: Dwight and Roy, you’ve been warned. 

SLAM: Who first put the ball in your hands?

Alonzo Mourning: My dad, but it didn’t work out too well at first. I was awkward and clumsy. I was 6-4 as a seventh grader and didn’t start—that was embarrassing. I said, I’m going to get better. That determination developed over the years. It was innate, a part of my DNA.

SLAM: Playing college ball at Georgetown, how important was coach John Thompson to your development?

AM: It was about me developing into a man. He was more of a father figure than basketball coach. He cared about his players like they were sons. He made me realize that basketball was a temporary thing. He also stressed the importance of education. He had coaches waiting to see if your ass came to class. If you missed class, everyone ran. Coaches don’t do that shit no more, man. A lot of these coaches don’t give a damn if their kids go to class because a lot of these kids are leaving after their first or second year.

SLAM: Then you had a great rookie season for the Charlotte Hornets highlighted by a buzzer beater to beat the Celtics in the first round.

AM: That shot was meant for Dell Curry and everybody knew it, but they weren’t expecting me to pull up and shoot it. I caught that joker and let it fly, brother.

SLAM: Why didn’t it work out in Charlotte?

AM: Management. You had management that really didn’t understand the importance of longevity, and when you have a team that talented making an investment in a group of guys that was on the verge of developing a really solid chemistry. I’m not going to bad talk anybody but I had serious run-ins with [then-Hornets owner] George Shinn and the rest of the Charlotte Hornets management. I was truly willing to accept less money to stay there but they were telling me they didn’t want to make the investment so they traded me.

SLAM: There were rumors you clashed with Larry Johnson, too.

AM: That had nothing to do with it. I want to dispel that rumor. LJ and I weren’t hanging out together off the court, but on the court we battled together, passed each other the ball, helped each other out on defense, did all the things that teammates did. It came down to George Shinn basically telling me I wasn’t worth the money my agent was asking for. I ended up leaving and getting more money somewhere else. I could’ve gone to three other teams. I had a choice to go to the Lakers, the Knicks and play with Patrick [Ewing], or the Pacers, but I went to Miami simply because Patrick told me on the phone to go down there and play for Pat Riley. He said that he was a great coach and would get the best out of you. I said, You don’t want me to come up to New York and play with you, man? I can be the 4, you can be the 5. He’s like, “No, go play for Pat Riley.” I was on the phone with him and John Thompson and both told me to play for Pat Riley.

SLAM: And, of course, the Knicks and Heat became archrivals. How much did that have to do with Coach Riley leaving the Knicks for the Heat?

AM: I think it had all to do with it. That rivalry was defined by Pat leaving New York. If Pat wasn’t in the equation, there wouldn’t have been a rivalry. He created the culture of these two different teams.

SLAM: You played them in the Playoffs three straight years. Let’s run through each series. To this day, Knicks fans are mad over the suspensions to Ewing, Johnson, Allan Houston, John Starks and Charlie Ward in the 1997 Eastern Conference Semifinals.

AM: Regardless of the scenario, we knew the rules and if you started fighting, you’d get kicked out. Guys made decisions that were detrimental to the outcome of that series.

SLAM: Then in the 1998 series, you were suspended for fighting LJ, but it’s remembered more for the image of Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy hanging on your leg. What kind of memories does that bring back?

AM: It was quite comical, but number one I was hurt by it because I let my team down. I let my emotions get the best of me. It made me understand that in order to be a great player for your team, you got to control your emotions. Mine totally got the best of me and it affected the outcome of our season.

SLAM: The 1999 series must have been so painful. With Michael Jordan retired, it was probably the best chance for that Heat team to win a title.

AM: Yup, it was. We would have beat San Antonio that year. I think we were a better defensive team than San Antonio.

SLAM: Some fans hated the low-scoring games of that era…

AM: I didn’t care man. It was all about Ws with me, bruh. I don’t care how we got them. We used to win ugly, but we won.

SLAM: Did you like playing the villain?

AM: I didn’t mind wearing that title. I didn’t mind that at all.

SLAM: After winning the Gold medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics, you were diagnosed with your kidney ailment. Did your family ask you to retire?

AM: I had a lot of my friends and family members telling me to retire. I listened, but if I didn’t follow my heart, I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in today. I made the decision to come back and play and that gave me the opportunity to win a Championship.

SLAM: Throughout your recovery, you cited Lance Armstrong as a source of inspiration. You even wore a LIVESTRONG bracelet. How do you feel knowing what we all know now about his performance enhancing drug usage back then?

AM: I’m nobody’s judge, but he decided to take the path he decided to take. But he was an example for a lot of people. For him to overcome testicular cancer and get back on that bike and do what he did, he inspired a lot of people. Regardless of how he did it, he still inspired a lot of people. [Laughs] He had a quote: “Pain is temporary but if you quit, it’ll last forever.” I carried that with me, mentally. I knew that if he could do it, then I could definitely do it. So it kind of motivated me.

SLAM: The Heat’s 2006 Championship team was led by Dwyane Wade and Shaq and had so many strong veterans such as yourself, Gary Payton, Jason Williams and Antoine Walker. The motto was 15 STRONG. Was that job Coach Riley’s crowning achievement?

AM: Pat always found a way to motivate his players to take that next step. He tried to erase any doubt or question and bring everybody’s mental approach to that main thing and that was just to win. Whatever it took for him to get us to think that way, he did it. Him putting together 15 Strong for the Playoffs, us buying into what we needed to do to come out on top, that’s what it was all about, just everybody doing their job making the right plays under the leadership of DWade, Shaq and those guys.

There was so much controversy with the officiating in Game 4 of the Finals. Regardless of if they gave us free throws or not, Dirk [Nowitzki] had free throws to put us away but he didn’t. He missed the free throws. He could have won it for them but he didn’t do it. They can whine and complain all they want, but we won the Championship.

SLAM: You retired in 2008, and it seems like the game has changed so much in that short time. Just recently, Kobe said that it’s too finesse. Do you agree?

AM: I can’t question David Stern. They want to take the aggressive nature, any violence, they want to take that perception away from the game. They want high-scoring, fun, up-and-down games. They don’t want those knock down, drag out Knicks games anymore because I guess, they feel like it’s not attractive for the sport. Even though I felt like when the Knicks and Heat played, it felt like the world stopped and everybody was watching us play. We had a following, a global following of people for Knicks-Heat, people wanted to pay top dollar and there were fights in the stands in Madison Square Garden and in Miami. They don’t want that anymore. I totally understand where they going with it. That’s the one thing always evident in life, change.

SLAM: There’s a dearth of big men these days. How would you fare against today’s centers?

AM: I would be the best center in the League, by far. If I was playing now, I would be better than Dwight [Howard] and Roy Hibbert because of my mentality. It’s only really three centers in the League, really. There’s Dwight, Hibbert and Marc Gasol.

SLAM: Your demeanor on the court was the opposite of Dwight Howard’s. I feel like you would try to eat him alive out there.

AM: Ugh, oh my God, yeah. The mentality has changed tremendously. Back when I was playing, there were like 15 good centers in the League. Night in and night out, I had to get ready. I had Rik Smits, Patrick, David Robinson, Hakeem, Shaq, Vlade Divac, McHale, Robert Parish, the list goes on.

SLAM: Who was your toughest cover?

AM: Hakeem, by far, man.

SLAM: Have you seen Joel Embiid from Kansas?

AM: Oh man, Embiid is nice. That young fellow, if he gets with the right team and right coaches, someone to groom him, he can be an amazing center.

SLAM: How is your health?

AM: My health is great, thank God. I get lab work done twice a year and see my doctor quarterly. I just have to keep exercising, taking my meds on time and doing the things I need to do.