Alonzo Mourning’s Legacy Should Be Mixed

Today, former Hornets, Nets, Raptors (kind of) and Heat center Alonzo Mourning retired from professional basketball. Mourning left a wonderful career in his wake. In 15 seasons, Mourning averaged 17.1 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 2.8 blocks, all while shooting 52.7% from the field. During his peak, which lasted roughly from 1995 to 2000, Mourning was a game-changing force on the court. He blocked shots at an astonishing rate, while altering countless others. He was fiery, physical, and passionate. This is what the vast majority of professional basketball fans will remember about Alonzo Mourning. Indeed, it is all true.

My memories of Mourning are considerably more mixed. They are tainted, inevitably, by the fact that I am a Knicks fan, and Mourning spent much of his years with the Heat. I am not sure how much this penetrated the national sports consciousness, but from 1997 to 2000, the Knicks and Heat really, really hated each other. It was not a rivalry perpetuated solely by fans. This was genuine and personal contempt for one another amongst the players and coaches. Any rivalry that gets its own Wikipedia page must be legitimate, must it not?

From 1997 to 2000, the Knicks and Heat met during the postseason each year. Furthermore, each series went to the maximum number of games. I remember the 1997 brawl during which the Heat’s P.J. Brown flipped over the Knicks’ Charlie Ward in Game 5. The benches cleared, resulting in the Knicks’ Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston, Larry Johnson, and John Starks all being suspended. The Knicks lost their 3-1 series lead, and the Heat advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals. I remember the 1998 series, which included a fistfight between Mourning and Johnson, Jeff Van Gundy infamously wrapping himself around Mourning’s leg, a barrage of unlikely three-pointers from Tim Hardaway, and the Knicks’ near-blowing of Game 5. 1999 was the year of Houston’s running, bouncing one-hander. I am going to make that nice and big because video is fun to look at and it remains one of my top five happiest sports moments. Plus it might aggravate the six Miami Heat fans out there in the world.

There. That’s better.

The point is, those years were absolute madness, and Mourning was right at the heart of it. When I think of Alonzo Mourning, I think of his relentless rebounding and shot-blocking as much as I think of his incendiary tactics, obnoxious muscle-flexing following average plays, and total willingness to fight any Knick as long as they were shorter than 6’3″. These are the memories of an unabashed Knicks fan. I do not expect mainstream basketball fans or basketball historians to look back on Mourning’s career through this lens. Doing so is probably not fair to Mourning. I am reasonably sure that his histrionics remained holstered against other teams, so to judge his entire career based on his antics during a few intense series with a division rival would be ill-advised.

I do, however, hope that fans remember the events and mechanics of his late-career contract disputes. Mourning began his career with the Charlotte Hornets. He was traded to the Heat in 1995, and played healthily and well for them until the 2000 season. Prior to the season, he was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, which is a serious kidney disease. He played sparingly in the second half of the 2000-2001 season, most of 2001-2002, and then sat out the entire 2002-2003 season to deal with his worsening condition. The Heat neglected to re-sign Mourning and his expiring contract.

As a result, Mourning signed with the New Jersey Nets for four years and $22 million. Here’s the kicker: the contract was uninsured. The Nets took an enormous chance on Mourning, and it did not pay off. After playing only 12 games for the Nets in 2003, Mourning retired from the NBA to get a kidney transplant. He returned to the Nets in 2004, albeit in a diminished role. Mourning began openly complaining to the media about his place on the team, campaigning to leave New Jersey as quickly as circumstances would let him. 

Ultimately, Mourning was traded to the Toronto Raptors. He neglected to report to the team because, well, they were terrible and he wanted to play for a winner. He refused to play, and the Raptors initially refused to buy him out. After a long standoff, the Raptors capitulated and bought out the remainder of Mourning’s contract. This made him a free agent in the middle of the 2004-2005 season. He returned to the Heat at the veteran’s minimum salary for the remainder of the season. Mourning re-signed with the Heat for the 2005-2006 season. He accepted his role as backup center, and in doing so, ambulance-chased helped the Dwyane Wade and Shaq-led Heat win an NBA championship.

On the heels of this triumph, basketball fans were faced with numerous articles, reports, and interviews lauding the grit, determination, and virtue of Alonzo Mourning. This praise was valid, but only to an extent. It did indeed take an awful lot of hard work and dedication to recover from a kidney transplant and return to the NBA. Mourning, however, was not and is not nearly the saint that such reports would have you believe. 

Let me be clear about this. Mourning, after being diagnosed with a rare and life-threatening kidney disease, signed with the Nets, who offered him an uninsured $22 million deal. I have no idea why the Nets did this, but they did. Then, after finally receiving a kidney transplant, Mourning returned to a rebuilding team. He looked around, decided he did not deserve this, and demanded a trade. After being traded to another rebuilding team, he looked around again, decided he did not deserve this either, and neglected to even report to the team. Having pouted enough, the Raptors bought him out at a substantial cost, so he could pick his dream team, with which he eventually won an NBA championship.

Reasonable minds can differ, but I believe that these are the actions of someone with a misguided sense of entitlement. As gifted and as hard-working as Mourning was, he was just as stubborn, egotistical, and unappreciative of the chances afforded to him. One can fairly argue about the intelligence of the Nets’ contract offer. They took a tremendous chance. It appears to me that the least Mourning could have done is reciprocate that act of faith and play out the remainder of that contract. Instead, it appears that Mourning thought himself entitled to an NBA championship because of the physical hardships he endured. Despite post-operation proclamations of newfound thankfulness, Mourning did not extend that revelation to his contract status. I find this as despicable now as I did then.

Alonzo Mourning’s time in the NBA was certainly worthy of praise. He was an excellent, hard-working, and passionate basketball player. He also donated significant time and money to charity. These facts are obviously commendable. When reflecting on his legacy, however, it is simply fair to remember the total lack of appreciation he displayed following his medical hardship. He complained until the Nets traded him and his uninsured contract, and neglected to even report to his new team. He then pouted enough to receive a buyout, after which he signed with a team of his choosing (just like he chose the Nets, mind you) and won an NBA championship. 

What a perplexing figure.

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