Thursday January 20th, 2005

The word I associate Alonzo Mourning with is "ferocity." He competed with ferocity and met the challenges of his kidney disease with ferocity. When I went to Miami last season to work on a story about Mourning, he grew agitated about the subject of his illness, and an agitated 'Zo was -- is -- an intimidating sight. He did the necessary things to keep playing but his approach appeared to be that he could will the disease away. If I don't talk about and don't dwell on it, he seemed to think, perhaps it will leave my body.

It didn't. His retirement announcement on Monday coupled with the revelation that he will need a kidney transplant was shocking but really not surprising, if that makes sense. Medical experts had expressed doubt that Mourning could keep playing at a high level -- at any level -- because there are some things you just can't beat, no matter how ferociously you go at them.

His retirement at age 33 is not a tragedy, and let us not present it as such. A tragedy would be if he fell dead on the court, like Hank Gathers once did after suffering a heart attack. Now, perhaps, Mourning will take the necessary steps to get his disease under control and live a full life as a husband, a father and a benefactor. But his retirement does provide a forum to once again ponder the finite boundaries of an elite athlete's career, and, more to the point, the way we all think about and deal with illnesses and injuries that we can't see.

I'm sure that Mourning's former New Jersey Nets' teammate Kenyon Martin feels bad, given the fact that just days before Mourning's retirement Martin had chided 'Zo about his disease while the two engaged in a verbal war of words during practice. (Martin has already said that he apologized.) But that hardly excuses Martin's comment. Few people can even pronounce "focal glomerulosclerosis," far less understand its debilitating effects, and Martin made his remark out of pure ignorance. Martin seemed to say: He doesn't look sick, so he must not be sick. Then again, reports say that Mourning had done roughly the same thing to Martin, questioning the severity of an ankle injury that has already kept Martin out of several games this season. Doubting someone's pain is never the right thing to do, though coaches, teammates, opponents and journalists do it all the time. One of the silliest comments about the Martin-Mourning battle was made by the Nets' Richard Jefferson, who was also involved in the verbal confrontation, apparently on Martin's side. "Who am I to judge the rules on talking trash?" Jefferson said. There might not be rules on it, Richard, but you have the intelligence to realize that riding someone about a potentially fatal disease is not talking trash -- it's being stupid.

The fact that the ugly verbal incident happened at all goes back to Mourning's ferocity. He was frustrated with his own limitations (Mourning averaged 8.0 points and 2.3 rebounds in only 17.9 minutes per game this season) and by his inability to lift a team that had taken a chance by signing him in the hopes that he could vault it past the Lakers or Spurs or whichever power the superior Western Conference would be sending to the NBA Finals. He was frustrated that Martin, a player with enormous physical gifts, seemed to be playing below his potential. And, most of all, he was frustrated that he could see his 12-year career coming to an end, and, with that, his chance of earning a championship ring. The closest Mourning got to winning a title was not really close at all -- in 1997 his Miami Heat, after disposing of the hated New York Knicks in the Eastern semis, got to the conference finals but managed to win only one game as Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls stomped them. For a player as competitive Mourning, the thought of a ringless career is hard to bear.

What will be his legacy? There's no way around the fact that Mourning, a seven-time All-Star, will be remembered as someone limited by disease, just as Sean Elliott will be remembered as a guy who came back and played after a kidney transplant. (That hasn't been mentioned as a possibility for Mourning.) And if Mourning doesn't make the Hall of Fame (he probably won't) it will be because he didn't have enough great years. But in his first eight seasons; he averaged 21 points and 10.1 rebounds; he ran the floor better than any center in the league; he was twice named the league's Defensive Player of the Year; and, to repeat, he played the game as ferociously as anyone.

However one assesses the Mourning-Martin contretemps, it's clear that Martin is not the player Mourning was in his prime ... and maybe never will be. Martin must show that he has overcome his disastrous offensive play in last year's Finals against the Spurs (he was 5 for 31 in Games 5 and 6, both New Jersey losses). More to the point, he must come to the realization that playing the game with ferocity is not about swinging your elbows, flapping your gums and pumping up the crowd. It's about playing it the way Mourning played.

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