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Mourning Retires

I had the honor of freezing my tail off at Barack Obama's historic inauguration on Tuesday, a moment in time that I surely with share with my kids some day -- whenever I have kids. But when it got too unbearably frigid for me, I walked from the parade route at the corner of Pennsylvania and Constitution to a gift store near 7th and E with one my friends. My friend grabbed a tan and brown Obama T-shirt and was admiring it when somebody reached over her shoulder, pulled the T-shirt closer to him and said, "Yeah, this is real nice. Real nice."

I turned around and looked up. It was Alonzo Mourning. Mourning, the former Georgetown center, brought a busload of kids from Miami to attend the inauguration of the first African-American president. He was smiling from ear-to-ear, laughing and joking as he walked through to the store, but he was a little perturbed that the T-shirt that caught his eye was only in size small. Mourning patted his son, Alonzo III, on the chest and joked, "If I bought you this, people could see your heartbeat."

I hate to leave, but I've got to go. (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/Getty Images/NBAE)

I spoke briefly with Mourning, but I wanted to give him his space. Plus, I probably looked like a circus clown to him since I was wearing about 15 layers of clothing and a ridiculous wool cap with the flaps on the side. I introduced myself and said, "It looks like you're enjoying yourself." Mourning smiled back and said, "How could you not?"

Mourning gleefully relished being in Washington to partake in history, unruffled by the knowledge that his basketball career would soon be history. Mourning officially announced his retirement from basketball after 15 seasons on Thursday. A seven-time all-star and likely Hall of Famer, Mourning had been rehabbing from a devastating right knee injury he sustained on Dec. 19, 2007.

Mourning, who turns 39 next month, had hoped to return in January. Although he wasn't signed to the Heat, he still had a spot in the team's locker room. He decided that he didn't want to put his health in jeopardy. Mourning had withstood so much during his career, battling back from a career-threatening kidney disease, and eventually winning an NBA championship in 2006. The ultra-intense competitor known for menacing scowls and flexes, averaged 17.1 points and 8.5 rebounds and twice was chosen NBA defensive player of the year.

He told reporters in Miami, "It's not a sad day, but it's a day to celebrate," Mourning said. "I can think of a million people right now that would have loved to walk the path I've walked. The ups and the downs made it even more joyous."

If you want to get a sense of what Mourning was like as a player, I'll leave you with excepts from two columns. The first is from the column Michael Wilbon wrote after Mourning won his only NBA championship. The second is from the column Mike Wise wrote after Mourning played his final NBA game.

From Wilbon:

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 . . ."

From Wise:

On the Mount Rushmore of rugged players with an indefatigable spirit -- Charles Oakley, Rick Mahorn, Jim Loscutoff, Jerry Sloan, Isiah Thomas, Allen Iverson immediately come to mind -- Mourning has to be at the top. It says everything about his career that he went down while trying to prevent a score. The man refused a ride on the stretcher afterward, limping badly back to the bench with the help of teammates . . .
In the mind's eye, seeing 'Zo pin a ball against the glass backboard is almost fresh. Same with that now almost comical clip of Jeff Van Gundy holding onto his leg like a bull terrier after Mourning squared off with Larry Johnson, which 'Zo laughs about now.
But what endures the most if the memory of an expectant father crisscrossing continents on 19-hour flights, leaving Sydney and the Olympics, trying to get back to his wife, Tracy, in Miami, to help her with the birth of his daughter. He came back to Sydney and won a gold medal. A few days before the kidney disorder that was supposed to end his career was diagnosed, Mourning chalked up his fatigue to jet lag.
Say what you want about denial, but that's perseverance. That's Alonzo Mourning.

It's only a matter of time before Mourning's No. 33 hangs in the rafters at American Airlines Arena. He never wore a uniform that was too small for him, but you could usually see his heartbeat every time he stepped on the court. Mourning never skimped you in the effort department, that's for sure.

By Michael Lee  |  January 22, 2009; 3:09 PM ET
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Zo, now that you've retired, can you come join the Wiz staff and teach some of our young guys about playing with intensity and heart?

Posted by: jcbcmb68 | January 22, 2009 3:29 PM | Report abuse

Michael, this is a wonderful piece. Really.

Posted by: JohninMpls | January 22, 2009 3:41 PM | Report abuse

I've watched pro basketball since the 70's and Zo was the best shotblocker I've ever seen bar none. I know Eaton and Olajuwon and Manute and Dikembe had great years, too. I've seen Walton and clips of Russell. Nobody altered the game like Zo. I've seen games where he'd block 5 or 6, alter 5 or 6 and wind up with 3 blocks in the official stats. I've also seen him block 3 point shots on the wings. His presence alone changed the way some players played their game.

I know it's a serious stretch right now but I see JM going after shots like Zo did. Jm is really aggressive about it and that's a great sign for us. With another 20-30 lbs of muscle, I can see him being a force defensively, as well. I doubt he'll ever be as good as Zo but very few are

Posted by: original_mark | January 22, 2009 3:49 PM | Report abuse

He never had anything nice to say about the Wizards and I always thought he was a jerk. Maybe he was nicer off the court, but on the court he was an a$$.

People around here liked him because he went to GU, but I for one honestly don't care that's he's retiring.

Any of my feelings have nothing to do with his kidney ailment which I wish on nobody. That is something entirely different.

- Ray

Posted by: rmcazz | January 22, 2009 4:03 PM | Report abuse

Note to rmcazz: WHAT? He turned down your autograph request, PLEASE!!!! Zo was a "MAN" on and off the court takes care of his family doesn't have any babies he's being sued over, always conducted himself like a "PRO" and a gentleman, the fact that he brought a bus load of kids all the way from FLA. to witness history says a lot about the type of person he is.

Posted by: dargregmag | January 22, 2009 4:17 PM | Report abuse

"With another 20-30 lbs of muscle, I can see him being a force defensively"

With another 14 or 14 inches of height, I could be the Wizards starting C. Do you have any idea how hard it is to put on 30 lbs of muscle (without steroids)? Never happen. If he can manage 10 or 15 it'll be a nice feat.

Posted by: kalo_rama | January 22, 2009 4:21 PM | Report abuse

kevin duckworth died?

Posted by: prescrunk | January 22, 2009 4:56 PM | Report abuse

Do you have any idea how hard it is to put on 30 lbs of muscle?

In fact, I do. It's possible depending on your age, frame and body type. If he's truly 237 as it says on, then 20 lbs of muscle is possible at 7 feet.
I suspect that he's closer to 225. It may take a year but if he really dedicated himself and hired a full time trainer and dietician, it's realistic.

Players usually lose weight during the season because they don't lift as much as during the offseason (lifting makes your appetite grow) yet they do a lot of cardio in practice and games. The real question is whether he can gain weight without losing his athleticism.

It's not really about weight as much as lower body strength. Camby has led the league in blocks a couple times and is a rebounding demon and he's listed at 6'11', 235. Of course Camby has been hurt a lot.

Posted by: original_mark | January 22, 2009 5:40 PM | Report abuse

BTW, does the NBA test for HGH?

There's your 30 lbs of muscle.

Posted by: original_mark | January 22, 2009 5:41 PM | Report abuse

Yeah that was a joke... I think.

Posted by: original_mark | January 22, 2009 5:47 PM | Report abuse

I agree with Ray. He was pretty obnoxious on the court (as Wilbon notes in the quote above), but I never heard one word that he was anything but a prince off of the court. A great role model for foster children (as he was one).

Posted by: disgruntledfan | January 22, 2009 5:56 PM | Report abuse

"It's possible depending on your age, frame and body type. "

Exactly. And athletes with thin, wiry frames like McGee's generally tend to have trouble packing on and keeping lots of muscle mass. Adding 30 pounds of muscle to his frame is extremely unlikely.

And his height is largely irrelevant to the issue.

Posted by: kalo_rama | January 22, 2009 6:00 PM | Report abuse

Mark, Russell was still better. I have to say though I kind of understand Ray's feeling toward Mourning from watching him go against my team. The guy could be a flat out bully. He was one of the nice guys off the court for the last 20 years.

What McGee has that all of the great shotblockers have are those quick hops. He'll get stronger, just because he's really so young and just growing into his body.

Guys on here are always talking about, weight and muscle. But most of lane work is footwork, leverage, and positioning. Guys like Rodman, and Jabber didn't grab tons of rebounds in their careers with brute muscle.

I'd agree McGee is probably more like 225lbs right now. More weight and strength will come with a couple of summers to workout. I'd love to see him and Blatche start to push each other in the off seasons.

Posted by: flohrtv | January 22, 2009 6:05 PM | Report abuse

Everyone who saw Russell says that he was the best (kinda like ppl saying Decon Jones was the best passrusher ever but sacks weren't recorded then). I can't argue with that.

Kal, I mentioned his height because it's conceiveable that JM could gain 25 lbs. without becoming obese since he's tall. I'd rather see him gain 25 than Nick Young.

Posted by: original_mark | January 22, 2009 6:22 PM | Report abuse

Obesity isn't an issue since we're talking specifically about adding muscle mass. You can't get fat by adding muscle.

If you're just talking about adding weight, sure he could do that. But not all weight is created equal. Adding 20-30 pounds of muscle (which is what you originally said) to anyone's body, but particularly a frame like his, is a major task. It's not anywhere close to being as easy as you make it out to be.

I recall reading how the Sixers put a lot of work into trying to get Shawn Bradley to add muscle to his slight frame, with almost no success. Some metabolisms simply aren't capable of that kind of alteration.

Posted by: kalo_rama | January 22, 2009 6:32 PM | Report abuse

As far as shotblockers go, from the modern era I'll take Hakeem overr Alonzo. Most shotblockers (including Zo) get most of their swats on help defense, rotating over on a player being guarded by someone else. Hakeem was great at blocking shots of the guy he was guarding, which is damned tough to do on a consistent basis.

Posted by: kalo_rama | January 22, 2009 6:44 PM | Report abuse

I had the pleasure of GU season tix for 25 years beginning in 1980. I saw Ewing establish GU's Big East dominance and Hoya Paranoia. In the wake of a string of solid, if unspectacular big men that followed Patrick, the buzz surrounding the announcement of Mourning's signing was electric. And 'Zo did not disappoint. It was unfortunate that, over all his years of success, John Thompson was unwilling or incapable of recruiting a single guard who could really shoot the ball. Charlie Smith made himself into a decent shooter, but arrived as a defensive harasser. That pronounced lack of outside shooting allowed even mediocre Big East teams and NCAA tourney teams to pack five guys inside and negate a great talent like 'Zo -- that is, if he managed to touch the ball at all. Think of this: GU had two lottery-pick big men - Mourning and Mutombo -- on the floor at the same time and couldn't get them the ball. (BTW, I gave up my GU tix in disgust when the indescribably incompetent Craig Esherick ran the program into mediocrity. When he was there, the games were unwatchable. I literally couldn't give away seats in the 5th row at the free throw line.)

One episode illustrates the earlier comment about Zo blocking 3s. We were in Providence for the matchup between #1 seed GU and #64, media darling Princeton. The arena was packed with underdog-loving fans hoping for the first-ever 64:1 upset. For the entire first half, it looked almost certain to happen. GU was getting embarrassed by backdoor layups. The 2nd half brought more of the same, to the point that GU was down about a dozen and playing poorly. That was when Zo imposed his will, closing off the lane, powering for scores with 2-3 guys draped on him. The final possession saw Princeton down 2, with their fine-shooting center, Kip something-or-other, seemingly wide open at the top of the key after artful ball movement. History imminent? Maybe, until Zo appeared out of nowhere to block what looked like a wide open three. Order restored, fans deflated, me relieved. I'll always owe him for that, staving off ignominy.

Zo comported himself with dignity as a pro, earned his reputation for fierce competitiveness the hard way -- banging with other studs every night. I will always consider him the epitome of mental and physical toughness. The NBA game is poorer for his departure. I share the earlier comment hoping that somehow the Wizards display rare wisdom and hire Zo to teach sissies like Haywood how to play in the paint.

Posted by: salescoach | January 22, 2009 7:20 PM | Report abuse

I lost almost all respect fo Alonzo when he did what no true pro does ... Gave up on his team!!! when he was traded to toronto he refused to go and forced them to buy him out which was basicaly armed robbery by him getting almost all of if not all of his salary owed to him as part of his cotract which was traded to the raptors. instead of being a true leader and pro and going to the raptors to help them rebuild and get better . he cried and demanded a buyout leaving them high and dry and him still getting his money as well as an oppourtunity to pick as a free agent where he want to sign without the raptors getting any compensation!!!! he chose to back up Shaq in miami and get a ring that was very underservant.. he should have given the ring to the raptors.. if he were the great guy everyone is claiming him to be he would have honored his contract and played it out with the raptors or given toronto back every cent of the money!!!! he leaves a great player but not a great guy for the sport..

Posted by: igotwork | January 22, 2009 7:39 PM | Report abuse

Zo was a great player and a good person. For those of you that disliked him, how many kids did you bring from miami to watch the inauguration?

Posted by: ged0386 | January 23, 2009 1:12 PM | Report abuse

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