It was unclear what Alonzo Mourning had left in the tank when he re-signed for his second stint with the Miami Heat. Once one of the game’s top centers, Mourning had barely played over the last two seasons, both with the Nets, because of complications from his kidney disease. Traded from New Jersey and released by the Raptors right after, a veteran Mourning signed with the Heat in April 2005 to backup the new big man in town, Shaquille O’Neal.
Zo quickly worked his way back into form, and by the next summer, he was swatting away shot after shot to help Miami win its first championship in 2006. Mourning had cemented his legacy in addition to building a friendship with O’Neal, burying the longtime rivalry the big men shared after going first and second in the 1992 draft.
Earlier this summer, before sharing memories on stage with O’Neal at an American Express Teamed Up event, Mourning caught up with The Crossover to discuss practicing with Shaq, Heat culture, and his infamous meme.
Rohan Nadkarni: What was the worst part about playing against Shaq?
Alonzo Mourning: He was bigger than me. [Laughs] He knew how to use his weight, leaning on you the whole game. It wore on you. He brought out the best in me. He truly did. The competitors that we were, we really fought each other and made each other better.
RN: What was it like being his teammate?
AM: It was an amazing experience, simply because it wasn’t about anything but winning. That’s what it was all about. We had reached a point in our careers—he had three championships at that time—my motivation was to get there. He had verbally made a commitment to the city of Miami to bring home a championship. He knew deep down inside he couldn't do it by himself. He surrounded himself with hungry players, battle-scarred players who had been in the league nine, 10, 12 years. We were all thirsty for the pinnacle of our sport. We kind of seized the moment together and that made it more fulfilling.
RN: Did you guys go head to head in practice?
AM:They were all-out wars. They were. It was also pretty comical at times. He didn’t want me to outdo him and I didn’t want him to outdo me. We were always on opposite teams. I was red, he was white. We had some wars in practice but it was fun. Again, he brought out the best in me. I did everything I could to stay prepared. There were times in practice he would tell me to slow down because I was working too hard in drills. I’d look over my shoulder and say, “Listen man, I don’t want to hear that right now because when you get in foul trouble I’m the one that has to come in the game.” We had some experiences but we uplifted each other with our play.
RN: You worked your way back from the kidney disease only to suffer a career-ending knee injury in 2007. Did you ever think about making a second comeback?
AM: I actually started to, but I thought my quality of life was more important. Me being able to run and walk, and continue to live a productive life, play with my grandkids, my kids, that was more important to me, especially when I knew I had already fulfilled all the things I could fulfill at that level. I was first-team All-NBA, gold medalist, NBA champion, All-Star. All of that in a nutshell drove me to prioritize what was most important, and that was my quality of life.
RN: Do you have a favorite Pat Riley motivational speech? I always hear about the bucket of ice incident.
AM: That’s the one thing that kind of stands out to me. We were in Detroit when he literally stuck his head in a foot tub of ice. His face and head are completely submerged. And then he looks up and then he says, “You have to play this game like it’s your last breath of air.”
RN: Another thing ex-Heat guys love talking about is culture. You still work for the team obviously, what’s the secret?
AM: Let me tell you what, I think it’s structure, I think it’s a village effort. You’re not just hearing it from Pat, you’re not just hearing it from Spoelstra. Everybody has that collective voice, and everybody’s on the same page toward us accomplishing that goal, which is winning. That’s basically what it’s all about. When you have players around and everywhere they turn they’re hearing that same voice, and it’s not swinging in different directions, it’s keeping you on track. That village and that collective culture, that effort to remind players of professionalism and hard work. The hardest working, nastiest, most disliked, most professional team in the league. That’s what it’s all about.
When players are constantly hearing that, it brings the best out of them. That’s why you have a guy like James Johnson who loses 40 pounds. That’s why you have a guy like Wayne Ellington who loses 20 pounds. That’s why you have a guy like Dion Waiters, who has a phenomenal year. They start seeing results, and they wonder why it didn’t happen earlier in their career.
RN: So I don’t know if people ask you about this gif all the time, but what’s going through your mind here?
AM: The score, man! 96–66. This was ring night.
RN: But you seem to have a moment at the end where you think everything’s going to be okay.
AM: Yeah. [Laughs] I don’t even know what I was thinking in that moment. But I was a little pissed, you can see that.