Statistics have never been the most eloquent spokesmen for basketball's premier centers. Wilt's stats oversold his achievements. Russell's undersold his. Walton, Mikan and Kareem would sooner nod at the titles won by the teams they played for than invoke any personal numbers. Thus when we use astonishing stats to make the case for outstanding centers, we do so advisedly.
But to illustrate how Alonzo Mourning has developed—from prodigy to enigma and back again, as his senior season at Georgetown winds down—permit us this one statistical indulgence. The figures come from Hoya sports information director for basketball Bill Shapland, who earlier this season noticed that Georgetown's guards had unusually high rebound totals. Shapland gave the matter some thought and then consulted the statistician's manual, where he came upon the beginning of an explanation. According to subsection (a) (3) of article 1, section 3, a player should be credited with a rebound when "tipping or batting a ball to a teammate so that the teammate or another teammate is the first to gain control."
After swatting away six shots in Sunday's 72-68 victory over Syracuse, Mourning had blocked 118 shots for the season. That's more than he blocked in each of the previous two seasons, and he is within reach of the school record of 169 he set as a slap-happy freshman. Yet Mourning has kept the majority of this season's rejections in play rather than sending them noisily out of bounds, and many have found their way into the hands of smaller Hoyas. By the book, then, each shot redirected into a teammate's hands should be a rebound credited to Mourning, not to whoever winds up with it.
That we begin with the blocked shot is fitting, because Mourning's college career has also been an interrupted arc. As a freshman he seemed assured of joining the pantheon of pivotmen and of someday bringing Georgetown a national championship. Then life with its huge paw came over from the weak side. There was a disappointing loss to Duke in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament—the closest Mourning will likely ever come to a Final Four. His sophomore season had barely begun when he found himself in a federal courtroom, called to account for his friendship with Rayful Edmond III, the notorious D.C. drug lord who is now serving a life sentence for selling crack cocaine. Several months later, there came a flap over an allegedly anti-Semitic remark he directed at Nadav Henefeld, the Israeli forward who played for Connecticut, while the teams were lining up for a free throw. (Though Mourning was clearly jawing at Henefeld, everyone involved denied his comment was anti-Semitic.) Soon thereafter Georgetown was once again prematurely eliminated from the NCAAs, this time by Xavier. It was as if all the adversity was a series of rejections—whack! whack! whack!—all coming on a single possession, the ball always in play, Mourning shooting yet again and...whack!
March 2, 1992
Georgetown is the Harvard of the Jesuits, the order known as God's Marines. So rarefied a place doesn't style itself as a staging ground for talking trash or cavorting with a drug lord. But if as a junior Mourning was ready to flourish, the opportunity to do so would elude him, this lime through no fault of his own.
First, 7'2" Dikembe Mutombo, a senior, had established himself as a Big East center. Mutombo had come literally out of Africa, with no daunting expectations, only unfolding possibilities. Comparisons were irresistible, and Mourning, who had been found in the bulrushes of tidewater Virginia not far from where Moses Malone had emerged, came up short. Further, midway through the season, Mourning suffered a serious injury for the first time in his career, straining the arch of his left foot late in a game in which he had outplayed Christian Laettner and the Hoyas had defeated Duke. He missed nine games and muddled through the rest of the schedule.
There had been much talk about how playing power forward alongside Mutombo would benefit Mourning in the long run—out on the floor he would improve his passing and learn the dribble-drive, thereby enhancing his pro value—but this theory was largely put forth by observers trying to fit a sorry season with a good face. When the Hoyas went into the pressing defense that is their signature, coach John Thompson used Mutombo as the last line of defense. The 6'10", 245-pound Mourning, who once blocked 27 shots as a youngster in an AAU game, sat on the bench.
Thompson, an unapologetic capitalist, thus did his part to make Mutombo a millionaire. The former Hoya is now a Denver Nugget and a leading candidate for NBA Rookie of the Year. Thompson is happily fulfilling his fiduciary duty again this season, plugging Mourning into the same spot in the star system. At week's end, Mourning was averaging 22 points and 11.8 rebounds and was among the national leaders in both field goal percentage (.610) and blocked shots. That others—Laettner, Shaquille O'Neal, Jimmy Jackson—receive more prominent mention for the player of the year award bothers Thompson not at all. "Recognition in America is how much money you're paid, not some All-America team you're named to," he says. "And Zo will be paid. To try to get the other recognition is foolish. We're not interested in winning popularity contests here at Georgetown.
"These NBA people, coming through here with their questionnaires, wanting to sec film, they're hilarious to me. Dikembe was the new kid on the block, and the new kid on the block is always the big deal. Last year Zo would have gotten all the blocked shots and rebounds Dikembe got if I'd put Zo at center."
Some NBA scouts remain skeptical of Mourning's offense, in spite of his high shooting percentage and an ability, showcased this season, to toss down jump hooks with either hand. One such skeptic says, "Another scout told me he'd seen Mourning make a drop-step move. I told him I'd believe it when I see it."
Yet Mourning's evolving skills in the post put him right where Mutombo and Patrick Ewing were at the same point in their careers. And keeping all of those blocked shots inbounds, the way Russell did, is only one sign of Mourning's maturation. A sorry assist-to-turnover ratio, about 1 to 2½ going into this season, has fallen more closely into line at about 1 to 1½. His demeanor, pointing and hollering instructions, evokes memories of Walton. And while he still suffers lapses in his comportment—he chose Feb. 8, his 22nd birthday, to demonstrate how unfinished the growth process is, earning ejection for shoving Providence forward Michael Smith in an 86-63 loss—Mourning looks, on the whole, like someone who has seen a speech therapist for his body language.
Partly as a result of the Big East's six-foul rule, which turns games into three-hour-long bloodlettings, he is the most fouled player in the game. Yet he soldiers his way to the line and drops in his free throws 76.7% of the time, a rate O'Neal can only dream of. "Alonzo has gotten away from that chippiness he once had," says Boston College coach Jim O'Brien. "If O'Neal doesn't come out, I can't believe he's not Number 1, Laettner included. And I think Laettner's a great player."
It hasn't been easy for Mourning to curb his demonstrative side. "You can't take the emotion out of a player, and emotion has been with me since I played my first organized game in seventh grade," he says. "But I've tried to control it. I look at things with more of an eye to how they'll affect me in the long run: Is it going to stain my image or disrupt me mentally or physically? My freshman year I definitely didn't think that way. Now I say to myself, Hey, that's not the road to go, that's not the thing to do, as a player or a person. Going through the things I did is part of life. Despite all the negative things that have happened, I've been able to come out on top."
Thompson suspects that Mourning has succeeded because of those negatives, rather than despite them. "People ask what's wrong with Zo," he says. "What's wrong with him? Hell, he's a kid getting his education. Sometimes we want to hold kids high, when there's really a frightened child within the man's body. He's not the great big idol with the golden head. He made a mistake in his association with Rayful. He knows that. Getting injured, he learned from that. But that's what education is supposed to be about."
Thompson believes he began to get through to Mourning during that first year, when the freshman wasn't taking school seriously. Thompson sat Mourning down and asked him to envision himself as the most dominant force in the NBA, the very fulfillment of the future sketched out by those who saw him in high school. "What if," Thompson asked, "you found out then—and only then—that you had a mind? That God had also given you—and only you—the gift to cure cancer? Would that bother you?"
Mourning reacted to this as if he had just heard a clock strike 13. From that point on, Thompson noticed a heightened sense of purpose in his player, in his studies—a sociology major, he's on schedule to graduate this spring—and ultimately in his life outside basketball.
There was much growing up to do. Mourning was a 12-year-old in Chesapeake, Va., when his parents, Alonzo Sr. and Julia, split up and left him with a friend of the family, Fannie Threet, who had a husband and a couple of kids of her own. His fame grew and he soon had his pick of colleges. It wasn't Thompson who initially attracted Mourning to Georgetown but rather the first few minutes of the 1982 NCAA title game—the sight of Ewing swatting away shot after North Carolina shot, not at all bothered that he was called for goaltending on the Tar Heels' first four baskets. Even before enrolling, Mourning referred to his future coach as "Big John" and got Thompson's assurance that there would be no prohibition on partying. By the prevailing standards at Georgetown, where Thompson attracts discipline-ready youngsters from parochial schools in the South and foreign-born tabulae rasae, Mourning promised to be a freethinking departure.
"I've cut down on the parties," he says. "That's part of keeping things in perspective. I have other priorities, and there'll always be parties." There is also a girlfriend. Her name is Tracy, she's a senior at Howard, and that's all he cares to say.
About Threet, however, he will speak expansively. "She hasn't seen me play once," says Mourning. "But nothing will stop her from coming to my graduation."
Mourning's decision not to turn pro early doesn't neatly fit the usual fable of the black youngster getting his degree to please a parent or surrogate. "Zo is considerate of her wishes, yes," says Thompson. "But he's also smart enough to know this 'education' isn't a slogan. It means something. When I asked him last spring what he was going to do, stay or leave, he said he thought he needed to mature some more. I told him I thought he was correct. End of story."
Last summer, for the first time he can recall, Mourning spent an off-season without playing any organized ball. Instead he worked out with Ewing and Mutombo in Georgetown's McDonough Arena and answered constituent mail for Rep. Thomas Bliley (R., Va.), "un-publicized" work, says a friend, "unlike that of [former UNLV guard] Greg Anthony, for whom the school practically took an ad out to announce that he got a summer job in Washington." The summer without basketball left Mourning feeling, as he puts it, "like a volcano ready to erupt" as this season got underway. Now he's so focused that Thompson sometimes has to chase him out of the weight room on off days, to assure that Mourning gets a break from the mental and physical strain of leading a 17-6 team that was an unlikely leader of the Big East as of Sunday.
Thompson believes Mourning is lucky that his ascent was interrupted when it was. "I look at a talented young person like Mike Tyson, and it reminds me of how everybody needs someone to play the heavy," Thompson says. "God knows, I'm glad Zo made his mistakes when I was there to jump his ass."
On this night in February, the strain of a double-overtime game has given Boston College center Bill Curley a keener appreciation for both his team's 88-86 victory and for what Mourning has done—scoring 38 points, grabbing 16 rebounds and blocking six shots—notwithstanding Curley's best efforts. Through an admixture of blood, sweat and fatigue, Curley tries to explain what it's like to get the ball in the post with Mourning somewhere between you and the basket. "He gets up so high so quickly that he could probably catch some of those shots he blocks," Curley says. "It's as if someone's throwing him a lob. He can just tap the ball out to a teammate, like an outlet pass."
Shapland, the Hoyas' figger filbert, has already thought of this, and gone so far as to imagine the statistical ramifications. "You could argue," he says, "that if a teammate gets a positional advantage to score at the other end as a result of his block, Alonzo should get a block, a rebound and an assist."
You could argue. But more numbers are precisely what we don't need, for numbers are by their nature at odds with the greater obligations of the position Mourning plays. Thompson is wrong about recognition in America, at least as it pertains to centers. Recognition doesn't come from the numbers on a paycheck, which built walls around Sampson. It comes, rather, from discharging championship responsibilities. And Zo, keeping his blocked shots in play, kicking the ball out when he's double-teamed and making efficient work at the free throw line, is showing he knows exactly what his duties are. Just as he made his way from churlish bad boy to young man, Mourning is moving forward, once more on an arc headed toward a goal.