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 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.
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 . . ."
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.
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