Hall of Fame: Alonzo Mourning

Jim Rogash
by Couper Moorhead

The Miami HEAT have never played a particularly easy brand of defense. Sprinting. Blitzing. Help. Recovery. Some players just aren’t made to play such a style. But in watching Alonzo Mourning play, you would never know how difficult the system was.

To say Mourning worked hard or that, to borrow a scouting term, had a high motor, is a massive undersell. Mourning worked harder than anyone else on the court, and make it look completely natural. Nothing labored. Nothing forced. Just sheer energy, overwhelming in its consistency. Mourning didn’t appear to be working within Pat Riley’s system – the system was always trying to keep up with Mourning.

That’s why Mourning is, despite missing all of the 2002-03 season with kidney disease and an eventual transplant, 11th on the NBA’s All-Time list of blocked shots. That’s why he’s fourth All-Time in block percentage, as Mourning blocked 6.5 percent of all shots taken while he was on the court. Those heights aren’t reached simply by being blessed with a 6-foot-10 frame and long arms. They’re reached through plays such as this:

It was during that series, the 2005-06 NBA Finals, that Mourning became a champion. It was also during that postseason that Mourning became just the third player, ever, to block more than eight percent of all shots during the playoffs, and to do it twice.

And he did it coming off the bench.

Prior to being diagnosed with kidney disease, Mourning was the franchise anchor for the Miami HEAT, which acquired him after his third season in Charlotte – and he had a rightful place among the great centers of the 90’s, including Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing and David Robinson. Each of those players commanded the middle of the floor for their team, and the HEAT belonged to Mourning.

Upon returning to Miami just before the 2004-05 playoffs, he accepted a secondary role to O’Neal. Mourning, in his mid 30’s, wouldn’t be the same after surgery. The minutes load, certainly, would have to shrink. He would be different. But different doesn’t have to be less. For Mourning, different meant being one of the best backup centers the league has ever seen. There was no playing cautiously for 20 minutes a game. Mourning appeared to be trying to spend all the energy he used to use in 38 minutes and burn them all in 20. And he would only get about five shots a game, but when he did get an opportunity, he often tried to dunk the ball through the floor, never mind the rim.

Those last three or so years in Miami may not seem all that important when compared to Mourning’s first eight in the league, when he helped define expectations for the modern center as an annual 20-point, 10-rebound averaging player. But for someone who was on the career fast-track to the tops of the All-Time leaderboards, accepting a new role and burning just as hot in those minutes is something you just don’t see too often.

Mourning may have been the text-book center on either end of the court, but, more so than his contemporaries, his was a story just as much about life as it was about basketball. About being at your best even when things around you are at their worst. Being an example for that sort of perseverance, for that brand of passion, transcends the numbers he leaves behind in the record books.

Mourning wasn’t just a Hall of Fame Player. His was a Hall of Fame Life.