They always talked about his heart and leaned on phrases like “warrior” and “fierce” to describe Alonzo Mourning, about how he could beat bigger centers (and a serious kidney ailment while he was at it). And that’s where his quest for the Hall of Fame gets cloudy.
How are the 24 anonymous voters who will decide enshrinement, with 18 needed to join the Class of 2014, to rate Mourning when his greatest attribute, his tenacity against all threats, cannot be rated?
Statistically, Mourning averaged 17.1 points and 8.5 rebounds in 15 seasons with the Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat and New Jersey Nets, credible numbers but hardly kicking down the door to Springfield, Mass. He had eight consecutive seasons of at least 18 points a game, and within that span, four seasons of 20 points and 10 rebounds. There are the seven All-Star appearances and two wins as Defensive Player of the Year, along with leading the league in blocks twice, finishing in the top six in shooting four times, winning two golds and a bronze with Team USA, starring at Georgetown and having an important role in Miami’s 2006 title.
“Look,” said Karl Malone, a first-ballot 2010 Hall of Famer and long-time Mourning opponent. “Let me tell you something. He’s one of the best basketball players to ever play. End of story. Don’t start talking about the heart. You don’t get in the Hall of Fame on a heart. You get in there by your numbers. His numbers speak for itself.”
The true Mourning legacy, though, is the tenacity in which he fought the bigger Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson and Patrick Ewing in their prime, a lineup of opposing centers so imposing that Zo can be regarded as a strong candidate for enshrinement despite making first-, second- or third-team All-NBA just twice. He can be regarded as the leading candidate among the eight finalists from the North American committee, a group that also includes former Heat teammate Tim Hardaway as well as Mitch Richmond, Kevin Johnson, Spencer Haywood and college coaches Eddie Sutton, Gary Williams and Nolan Richardson.
“It depends on who’s judging, you know?” Mourning said when asked how his passion should be factored into the balloting. “Everybody’s going to have their own perspective. All I know is, I played the game the right way. I feel like I played it the right way and I feel like I contributed to it the right way. I think that’s all you can ask for from a player. You play the game the right way, you respect the game, you work it as hard as you can. Nobody can ever question my work ethic. They definitely can never question that. And nobody can ever question my sacrifice. I made the ultimate sacrifice. There was a point in time in my career where the doctor literally had to stop me from playing because he said, ‘Your phosphorous levels are so high that you could risk cardiac arrest out there on the court.’ There’s a lot of people that don’t know that, but I was literally out there risking my life just to play the game of basketball. That kind of puts things in perspective.”
Mourning was diagnosed with focal glomerulosclerosis in October 2000, missed the first 69 games of the Heat season (while still being voted an All-Star starter) and returned to average 13.6 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.38 blocks in 23.5 minutes in the final 13 contests. He played 75 games in 2001-02, at 32.7 minutes per. The illness caused him to miss all of the 2002-03 season.
Mourning signed a four-year free-agent deal with the Nets before the next season, only to retire on Nov. 25, 2003. On Dec. 19, he underwent a kidney transplant.
And then he played again. Mourning made 12 appearances for the Nets in 2003-04, was traded to the Raptors in a deal that sent Vince Carter to New Jersey, never reported to Toronto and forced a buyout that allowed Zo to return to Miami. He played part of that season with the Heat, the full schedule of two others, won a ring while contributing five blocks in the decisive Game 6 of The Finals, then tore a tendon in his right knee on Dec. 19, 2007 – the fourth anniversary of his kidney transplant.
Only then, at age 38, did he retire. Mourning had outlasted everything. He banged into Shaq, sprinted downcourt with Dream, and swatted away a kidney disease.
Which leaves him where in the Hall of Fame?
“I don’t know how they judge it,” Mourning said. “I’ve never been a part of a committee. I don’t know what they look at. Do they look at stats? Do they look at the impact you had on the game? I don’t know what they look at. All I know is I came in, I worked the game the right way, I didn’t take too many minutes off when I was out there on the court. I can honestly tell you that. I did what I could to try to make the organization that I was a part of successful and I did what I could to make my teammates better with my play.”
Malone, the former power forward, said, “If Alonzo Mourning is not in the Hall of Fame this year, let’s get rid of it and start over.” But voters have recently been especially protective of first-ballot nominees. (Gary Payton got in last year, but Reggie Miller and Dennis Rodman went from not making finalist their first try all the way to election on the second attempt.) On the other hand, Mourning has a unique place in history – played after kidney transplant is not on many other applications – and the kind of career that gets him deep into the conversation.
It’s the part about trying to put a value on his warrior heart that is going to be tough.