- The Washington Times - Friday, January 23, 2009

Alonzo Mourning played with a chip on his shoulder and a fire in his belly. He eventually played with a donated kidney and a peace that came from the Heat claiming the NBA championship in 2006.

Mourning was the last of the great Georgetown centers, undersized but more fierce than either Patrick Ewing or Dikembe Mutombo.

He also was the last of the great centers who hailed from Virginia, lacking the rebounding zeal of Moses Malone but sturdier than Ralph Sampson.

It is not inaccurate to note that one of Mourning’s most memorable moments concerned his inadvertent use of coach Jeff Van Gundy as an ankle bracelet.

Or as Knicks analyst Walt Frazier put it: “What’s Van Gundy doing, swinging from a man’s leg?”

This was the 1998 playoffs, the Knicks vs. the Heat, with hard feelings all the way around. The fracas erupted after Larry Johnson hit Mourning in the face late in Game 4. The two shared an uneasy history, going back to their contentious days together in Charlotte.

That was the beginning of the end of that version of the Heat. Within two years, Mourning was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, a career-threatening kidney disease.

He would not be the same player, the dominant 20-10 player who patrolled the three-second lane as if his very existence depended on it.

Yet he seamlessly settled into a scaled-down role, content to relieve Shaquille O’Neal in the Heat’s championship season. And he remained defiant to the end, ever protective of the basket.

He averaged 2.7 blocks as a 36-year-old backup in 2006, the sixth-best mark in the NBA. That was indication of his seething will and rage on the defensive end of the floor.

Ewing was possibly the more intimidating shot-blocker as a collegian. Yet as Ewing expanded his range on offense in the NBA, his interest in defense started to wane. Mourning never lost that passion. He also never lost the capacity to rile the opposition’s supporters with his array of tough-guy looks.

He was the guy you wanted on your side in a dark alley. Not that he was a fighter, as NBA Nation saw in his showdown with Johnson.

As a fighter, Mourning was a pretty good energy-saving windmill.

“I feel I’ve physically done all I can for this game,” Mourning said Thursday. “It has been an amazing ride.”

The ride ended abruptly 13 months ago, when he tore the patellar tendon and quadriceps muscle in his right leg.

He wrestled with the decision to retire and the itch that never quite goes away. One of the hard truths of professional sports is that athletes age in dog years. At 38, Mourning is ancient. His championship ring ultimately trumped the comeback notion.

“My health is more important than anything,” Mourning said. “God willing, I’ll be able to live another 40 or 50 years, and I want to do it in a comfortable state. Right now, I’m there.”

Mourning has been active in the South Florida community through his charity foundation in recent seasons. He also has become an able spokesman of the National Kidney Foundation.

Mourning leaves the game as a seven-time All-Star and two-time defensive player of the year. He leaves with a question of what might have been with good health. That question could delay his admission into the Hall of Fame.

His career numbers certainly would have been more robust if not for the kidney disease that robbed him of three seasons. However his Hall of Fame candidacy goes down, he is deserving.

Stan Van Gundy, the Magic coach who is the brother of the one-time human ankle bracelet, praised Mourning’s passion.

“He was a guy who played as hard as anybody who’s ever played in this league,” Van Gundy said.

Mourning exposed the lie that NBA players somehow do not play with the same tenacity as collegians.

That, too, is part of his ample legacy.

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