The Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame asks new members to please limit their induction speech to five to 10 minutes.
“I plan on being about 15 to 17,” Alonzo Mourning had estimated in the buildup to Friday night’s ceremony in Springfield, Mass. “Hey, man, it’s the only opportunity you get!”
Zo ended up speaking for 24 minutes.
He probably could have used the entire night, and still have just begun.
Where do you start when your basketball resumé is brimming with stardom at Georgetown, an Olympic gold medal and a championship with the Miami Heat in a decorated 15-year NBA career — but your life off the court is where the story gets compelling and veers into a movie script.
Where do you start when you could easily talk for hours just about yourself and your sport — but you would much rather talk about everything but. About what’s really important.
Mourning, now 44, was the Heat’s first superstar, the man who helped teach a franchise how to win. He speaks with a slow, deep rumble that tends to lend drama and heft to whatever he says. Sometimes, though, what he says needs no adornment.
“I go into the Hall of Fame,” he said earlier this week, “standing on the shoulders of all of the angels I’ve had in my life.”
Friday he opened his remarks to warm laughter by alluding to a famous snapshot from a late 1990s playoff game against the rival New York Knicks, when a brawl ensued and the opposing coach latched onto Mourning on the court.
“It’s good to be remembered for more than just dragging Jeff Van Gundy along on my leg,” he said, smiling.
Mourning joined 10 new inductees — including former NBA commissioner David Stern in Friday’s hall Class of ’14. The group also included Fort Lauderdale-born Mitch Richmond, who graduated from Boyd Anderson High.
Mourning is the 25th person who has represented the Heat, Dolphins, Marlins or Panthers to enter his sport’s hall of fame. That’s 16 players and nine coaches or executives, but that includes several of both who were short-timers in South Florida and not mostly known for what they did here.
In terms of accomplishment, longevity and overall impact with a local team, you would put Mourning perhaps right after Don Shula, Dan Marino and Pat Riley, and right there with Bob Griese and Larry Csonka, on the top tier of Miami hall of famers.
And Zo, the 6-10 former center, might top all of them — and top most athletes, period — for the challenges and detours and “angels” making up his life’s story.
He would likely never have gotten to Georgetown to be guided by legendary coach John Thompson, or to an NBA career guided in Miami by Riley, if not for the remarkable foster mother who substantially raised him. Zo was one of 49 kids that Fannie Threet took under her wing.
Thompson and Riley together presented Mourning for induction Friday night, but he is certain he wouldn’t have been there at all if not for the woman he still reverently calls “Miss Threet.”
She died last year at age 98. But another of Mourning’s angels was in Springfield, along the Connecticut River in southwest Massachusetts, for the induction.
A cousin, Jason Cooper, reappeared in Mourning’s life after some 25 years apart and donated the kidney that saved Zo’s life after he had been diagnosed with focal glomerulosclerosis. The surgery was Dec. 19, 2003. And you still wonder which is more astounding:
That a kidney transplant brought an NBA star’s career to a sudden halt in its prime … or that he came back from it to play again, to defy odds, and to win a championship with the Heat in 2006.
It has been almost 11 years, but Mourning still recalls a hospital visit by Riley two days after his transplant, the coach walking into the room assuming his star player would never play again.
“I got up out of that bed, slowly, still in pain, looked at him, and said, ‘I’m coming back.’”
Both men wept that day. After sitting out an entire season, Zo kept his promise.
The kidney disease, transplant and comeback revealed to Mourning something about himself he didn’t know.
“It taught me I had this inner collective resolve that I found a way to tap into,” he said. “So many people were in my ear telling me to give up, telling me to stop. I found out that life is basically centered around our mental approach. It’s amazing how powerful our minds are.”
The Heat had never retired a player’s jersey before Zo’s No. 33 was lifted to the rafters in a 2009 halftime ceremony, the same year Mourning was made a club vice president.
“He had to be the first one” Riley said.
Zo retired a seven-time all-star, twice NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and the greatest shot blocker in Heat history.
“And that was in a league that was center-dominated then,” he reminded. “Night in night out I had my hands full. It was no joke.” Now, with a dearth of true centers, “I’d be the best guy in the league!”
His famous scowl and biceps-flexing bravado personified determination and passion.
“It came naturally because I was having fun, man. I was having a blast. I loved it!”
Just as Mourning’s upbringing in foster care and surviving a kidney transplant distinguish him apart from basketball, so does his philanthropic work since his playing days. When Mourning says, “I feel like my legacy off the court will overshadow my legacy on the court,” he isn’t complaining.
Alonzo Mourning Charities helps children and families in at-risk situations. He helped create the organization Athletes For Hope. He founded the Overtown Youth Center. In 2009, the Miami-Dade School Board christened Alonzo and Tracy Mourning High School in North Miami.
The mindset that fosters charity is the same mindset that had Mourning thinking of others, not himself, during Friday’s night’s induction speech.
From Fannie Threet and Jason Cooper off the court to John Thompson and Pat Riley on it and many more, Zo had plenty of angels to thank.
“This induction isn’t really about me,” he’d said earlier in the week. “We don’t go through life alone. For me it was all the right people in the right place at the right time. I overcame all of those obstacles because so many people gave me the greatest gift possible — a piece of themselves.”
The transplant changed Mourning’s perspective. How could such a thing not?
“Every now and then life raises its ugly head and you step on one of those landmines,” he said. “But unbeknownst to you there’s a bigger message going to you through that. In every adversity there’s a seed of equivalent benefit — the good that can evolve from that adversity. I landed on my feet. If God took me today, I’m thankful for the journey. I can honestly say I’ve lived a storybook life.”