MIAMI — Alonzo Mourning is returning to work, and he hopes plenty of people take notice.
Mourning’s NBA career was derailed four years ago when he was diagnosed with kidney disease and likely ended last fall when his condition worsened and forced a transplant.
Six months later, the former Georgetown star is playing a lead role in a nationwide education program on anemia and the perils of ignoring it, hoping he will reach as many people as he did during his All-Star career.
“There’s so much work to do,” Mourning said. “There’s so many diseases and so many different health-related issues that we need to address. A lot of good has come out of Alonzo Mourning’s situation. It has created more awareness. More and more people are paying a little more attention to their health.”
Mourning, 34, was diagnosed in October 2000 with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, a disease that keeps kidneys from properly filtering waste from blood and often leads to a transplant. He missed much of the Miami Heat’s 2000-01 season, but played in 75 games the next year and made the All-Star team.
Yet the 6-foot-10 center’s condition deteriorated again and he missed the entire 2002-03 season, his last in a $105million, seven-year deal with the Heat.
Mourning became a free agent last summer and signed a four-year, $22million contract with the New Jersey Nets, but played in 12 games before finally retiring under doctor’s orders in November. He received a cousin’s kidney Dec.19, and doctors have told him his recovery is well ahead of schedule.
“He’s done as well as you can expect a transplant patient to do,” said Dr. Gerald Appel, a kidney specialist at Columbia University Medical Center and Mourning’s primary physician. “The further you go, the lower the risk of organ rejection. He’s at the six-month point now. At a full year, it drops off tremendously.”
Mourning plans to meet with transplant patients and others through the Rebound From Anemia program, which seeks to educate people how to identify common symptoms of the disease and advise them not to ignore telltale signs. Symptoms include extreme fatigue, pale skin, shortness of breath, dizziness, confusion, rapid heartbeat, feeling cold and depression.
“I don’t have to worry about where my next paycheck is coming from or where I’m going to get my next medication,” Mourning said. “If I worked 9-to-5 and had to provide for my family, that would be a stressful situation. That’s reality. There’s people dealing with chronic kidney disorder who don’t have the help, flexibility or insurance they need to get through life.”
More than 3 million Americans suffer from the condition and left untreated anemia — which prevents the body from producing enough red blood cells — can lead to heart problems and other illness. Treatments can include medications and diet modification and supplements.
Mourning said he developed anemia as a side effect of the kidney disease.
“I know I can’t help everybody, but I know I am helping some people,” Mourning said. “I know that my efforts aren’t in vain. I know I can’t help the world. But I also know the giving that I do is contagious and what we’re doing is working.”
Appel said that even when Mourning’s situation was bleakest, he was still attempting to put together ways to raise awareness about chronic kidney disease and other problems that typically accompany its diagnosis.
“Even when he was sick, he had an unbelievable amount of energy and he always thought about how to help other people,” Appel said. “I’m blessed to have a patient like that. I won’t say any names, but there’s a lot of tattooed players in the NBA who would never think like that.”
Mourning still identifies himself as a professional athlete, not a former one. He is working out with a trainer and getting stronger but hasn’t received clearance to resume full-scale basketball workouts; doctors have ordered him to avoid the type of hard contact that comes with banging for rebounds and taking charges.
Still, he refuses to shut the door on perhaps returning to the NBA sometime in the next two years, saying he still covets the championship he never won while playing with the Heat, Nets or Charlotte Hornets.
“That’s a dream, but it’s a farfetched dream,” Mourning said. “I’m not centering my whole life around Alonzo Mourning getting back on the court and playing. I don’t want to go through a transplant again. I’m centering my life around making sure my body keeps this kidney for another 50 years and helping others.”
Appel hasn’t ruled a comeback out either.
“Basketball is still in Alonzo’s heart,” Appel said. “And he’ll never be able to sit back and do nothing.”