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The Man In The Iron Mask Behind the grim game face that has made him one of the NBA's least popular--though most imposing--players, Alonzo Mourning is a vulnerable man still pained by memories of his lonely, awkward youth

March 30, 1998
March 30, 1998

Table of Contents
March 30, 1998

The Man In The Iron Mask Behind the grim game face that has made him one of the NBA's least popular--though most imposing--players, Alonzo Mourning is a vulnerable man still pained by memories of his lonely, awkward youth

Nothing has changed.

This is an article from the March 30, 1998 issue Original Layout

"Alon-zo sucks!"

He's at the foul line. People rise from their seats, and with
just 35 seconds left in the game, they fill Washington's
squeaky-new MCI Center with this December night's first
unanimous jolt of fan voltage: a cascade of boos, snarls, chants.

"Alon-zo sucks!"

It's as if he never left. Seven months have passed since Alonzo
Mourning, the 6'10" Miami Heat center, last played an NBA game,
but the Wizards have gotten the usual dose of Mourning glory:
four blocked shots, nine rebounds and 24 points; the flailing of
his Robocop arms and the shoving of Washington forward-center
Terry Davis and the contorting of Mourning's face into a mask of
puzzled fury. "That boy is wild," Davis will say later. No one
cares that the game is Mourning's first since surgery repaired a
partially torn tendon in his left knee in September. No one
cares that he played for four years at nearby Georgetown.

"Alon-zo sucks!"

Mourning misses the first shot and stares at the rim with an
expression of profound sadness. He hits the second.

"Alon-zo sucks!"

"He's kind of a hated man," says Heat power forward P.J. Brown.
Kind of? Mourning is arguably the most hated man in the NBA. His
on-court demeanor--defensive, dour, the purest distillation of
Georgetown coach John Thompson's Hoya Paranoia--makes Mourning
an instant villain, but for much of his career he has worn the
black hat with relish. Word has gotten around: Mourning refused
autograph requests as a rookie with the Charlotte Hornets in
1992-93, brushing off kids like lint. He wanted a woman reporter
to be kicked out of the Hornets' home locker room before a game.
Last April, after being outplayed by Danny Schayes in Game 4 of
a first-round playoff series between Miami and the Orlando
Magic, Mourning snapped at reporters gathered around his locker,
"Why don't y'all get the f--- out?" After hitting a
victory-sealing three-pointer against the New York Knicks in
Game 6 of last year's Eastern Conference semifinals, Mourning
screamed nationally televised curses at the Madison Square
Garden crowd.

Fans and reporters are not the only ones whom Mourning has left
with a sour taste. Point guard Tim Hardaway, who joined the Heat
from the Golden State Warriors in 1996, says no other player in
the NBA is bad-mouthed by his peers as much as Mourning is.
"Nobody," he says. "Until I played with him, I thought he was an
a------."

Brown, too, disliked Mourning as an opponent. "He was a little
dirty and went out of his way with officials--acting surprised,
crying," says Brown, who played for the New Jersey Nets before
coming to Miami in 1996. Now that he's with the Heat, Brown
says, players on other teams ask him about Mourning constantly.
"They think he's arrogant, they think he's conceited," Brown
says. "I say he's not like that. They don't believe me."

Andre Napier deals with this all the time. Napier, a concert
promoter who is one of Mourning's best friends and organizes
Mourning's annual three-day charity event, Zo's Summer Groove,
doesn't hesitate when asked to name the most prevalent popular
misconception about Mourning. "That he's an a------," Napier
says. "That's what they say; Alonzo's an a------."

For his part, Mourning says what his friends and teammates say:
Get to know him as a man and you won't be sorry. "The only thing
they can all go by is what they see on television, and in a way
that's unfair," Mourning says. "But I can't control that. I
can't change the way I play. My intensity is part of my game: It
gets me up and ready to play. I've always been excited, anxious,
and my emotions have been there ever since I picked up a
basketball. You can't just turn that off overnight."

Tracy Wilson Mourning has learned. Since she and Alonzo started
dating as college freshmen, she has seen all his different
sides. She has seen him frightened by a mouse, emotionally
drained when she once broke up with him, and giggling and
telling bad jokes like a 10-year-old. They married last year,
and she still loves telling how romantically he proposed, down
on one knee. But when it comes to basketball, he knows only one
way to act. If she asks him to be nicer on the court, he looks
at her as if she's insane. "But that's me," he tells her, and if
his attitude offends some opponent or some reporter, so be it.
One thing else she has learned, the hard way: Alonzo is nothing
if not consistent.

Tracy is a reporter. In 1994, when Alonzo traveled with Patrick
Ewing and Dikembe Mutombo to South Africa, she went along as a
trainee for The George Michael Sports Machine. Interview a guy
who's in love with you--easy assignment, right? "He was just so
rude," Tracy says smiling. "I asked a question similar to one
the reporter before me had asked, and he said, 'I just answered
that.'"

Last summer Tracy interviewed Alonzo again, for a Florida cable
network. He was a little better. Still, she says, "I felt so
small. If I ask a question, he'll be so sharp, and people won't
know I'm his wife, and they'll be like, 'Damn, what'd you say to
him?' He's very short with me. He's supportive, and he wants me
to go out and do what I want to do. But when it comes to
interviewing him, I hate it. I just hate talking to him. It's
the worst."

He can still see the hallways, see himself 13 years old and
already 6'4", craning over the other kids, his teachers, his
principal. Pants cuffs drifting above his ankles, hands dangling
like skillets, Alonzo Mourning was the clumsiest thing, a body
at war with itself. He felt like a freak. Who would believe that
now? His frame is well proportioned and thick, and he strides
with an athlete's cool grace. There's no trace of who he was,
not until he says that he can still feel the other kids watching
him, tearing him down. "I was laughed at," he says. "And the
people who laughed at me don't realize the impact they had."

He leans back from the cafe table, eyes roaming. This is the
impact: No one is laughing, not here. It's another molten day at
the core of Miami's Coconut Grove--one step out of the shade and
your shirt is soaked--but Mourning is the coolest man in the
place. Women gingerly ask for his autograph; men do double takes
and whisper. Upstairs a store sells jerseys emblazoned with his
name. Across the courtyard, in a plate-glass window at Dan
Marino's American Sports Bar & Grill, hangs a huge poster of
him. Mourning is 28 and in the second season of a seven-year
contract worth $105 million. He's barely sweating.

But he takes no joy in any of this. No, as always in public,
Mourning is stony, his face as somber as a pharaoh's death mask.
This expression has served him well, he tells you; it has kept
scam artists and autograph hounds at bay. It has also imbued
Mourning with a gravity that few NBA players possess. Around the
league he's commonly described as a warrior, because his
dedication to the game is absolute. Few doubt Mourning when he
says of his season-opening 22-game stint on the injured list,
"Just sitting on the side was torture." Few doubt that when he
dubbed a yuletide showdown with the Chicago Bulls "war on
Christmas Day," mad visions of a Braveheart charge through a
manger danced in his head. Mourning is not ironic. He says
nothing with a wink.

"He's up, he's down, he's frustrated, he's joyous, he's deep,
he's reflective--he's all those things, and he wears the
emotions right on his sleeve," says Heat president and coach Pat
Riley. "He embodies the soul of this team. Sometimes he looks
bad and gets beat up for it publicly, but his spirit is sincere.
That's where I think his greatness is."

Of course Riley, the master motivator who presents every game as
a life challenge, loves Mourning. There's no other player whose
every move trumpets the same message: This is no game! This is
important! Mourning does not chat with fans; he's not here to
entertain. Every loss leaves him blank-eyed, mulling over the
shots he didn't block, the free throws he didn't make. "He
doesn't let it go," Tracy says. Last year, surrounded by
relatives and friends at dinner after one galling defeat, Alonzo
sat silently until he erupted at Tracy, who was four months
pregnant: "Why haven't you had that baby yet? If that baby was
here, I wouldn't have my mind on the game!"

On Jan. 2, after a game at Charlotte in which Miami made a
maddening turnover in the final seconds of regulation and lost
in overtime, Mourning got home after midnight. Tracy took one
look at him and fled. The two burrowed at opposite ends of the
house. But the solitude didn't help Alonzo. He went to the
weight room in the garage and, in the wee hours, pumped and
sweated through a few sets. That didn't help either. "I couldn't
go to sleep, just replaying situations where I could've done
better," he says. "I just want to help us win. Winning makes all
the discomforts in my body feel better. I can't explain it, but
when I lose, my pains hurt more."

Through Sunday he had averaged 21.1 points, 10.1 rebounds and
2.96 blocks in his six-year career. He has been named an
All-Star four times. Because of his defensive prowess, he has
been compared to Bill Russell. Mourning doesn't care. He hears
only that his Heat were easily shoved out of the playoffs by the
Chicago Bulls again last season, that he has never come up big
against the only team that matters, that he is a second-tier
center--a BMW, as Shaquille O'Neal once put it, to Shaq's
Mercedes-Benz. Mourning responds the same way he did when he was
13 and heard everyone laugh: "They are pushing me to work that
much harder." His postpractice workouts are legendary. He will
shoot long after everyone else is dressed.

"He's there early, and he's the last one to leave," says Miami
small forward Jamal Mashburn. "A lot of All-Stars talk about
doing that, but he does it. You see a lot of players say, Screw
it, I make all this money, I do what I want. But 'Zo's special."

Mourning, of course, wants to be a champion. "You can make only
so much money," he says. "There's just so many suits you can
buy, so many cars or boats. After a while it gets old. What else
is there? I'm at the point where I've got all the things I want:
a beautiful family, material things. I want to win. I want a
ring now." There's nothing rare in this, except with Mourning
it's not just a want. It's a need, and it's becoming a burden.

"It's totally unnecessary, but for him to believe he's a winner,
he must believe he has the world on his shoulders," says Bill
Lassiter, Mourning's coach at Indian River High in Chesapeake,
Va., and a guiding force in his life since the seventh grade.
"He will carry everything right there. It won't crumble until he
wins a championship."

The question is, Does Mourning have what it takes? Riley, who
made Mourning his franchise player by signing him to that
seven-year deal in 1996, has no choice but to believe Mourning
has it. But unlike his onetime hero and close friend Ewing,
Mourning didn't win an NCAA championship at Georgetown. And
aside from one time last year, when he guaranteed a win against
Chicago in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference finals and backed it
up with an 18-point, 14-rebound performance, he has rarely
dominated in the postseason, getting outplayed not only by
Schayes but also by the Bulls' Luc Longley. In the Heat's two
playoff showdowns with Chicago since Mourning joined the team,
he has been rendered all but irrelevant, and Miami has gone 1-7.

Experts nevertheless have pegged the Heat as one of the Bulls'
main challengers this season, but so far Mourning's impact
against Chicago has been slight. On Christmas Day he fouled out
with 3:34 left, after scoring 16 points, in a 90-80 loss. He
glowered on the bench while Dennis Rodman mocked him from the
foul line. On Jan. 7 Mourning, playing with seven stitches in
his left hand, got 16 points and eight rebounds in a Miami
blowout win marked by yet another in a long line of tussles with
the Worm.

It's an article of faith that Rodman's taunting and grabbing
have unhinged Mourning, made him think more of retaliation than
of winning. Last year's Game 4 presented a sweet image of
Mourning with his fingers up Rodman's nose, looking to
disassemble his face. "Before his career's over, he's going to
hurt somebody seriously," Mourning says of Rodman. "I just don't
want it to be me."

Rodman's response: "He's immature. Just being smart about the
game--that's what I'm doing. Being smart."

Rodman knows he's an affront to much about the game that
Mourning holds dear. Worse, the Bulls have figured out exactly
where Mourning is most vulnerable. For years he has worked to
erase his awkwardness and make himself a great player. But
against Chicago he often resembles a tormented bull lunging at a
cape.

Riley has lectured Mourning endlessly about playing with a
clearer head, and since the All-Star break the center has been
on model behavior, keeping silent on iffy calls, patting refs on
the butt, channeling his fury solely into his play. Still, even
Mourning's 21-point, 13-rebound effort against Chicago in the
teams' final regular-season meeting, on March 10, will be
remembered for only two things: Mourning throwing wild
elbows--at one point spearing Michael Jordan with a shot to the
head--and Miami losing by 15 points. Too often, it's as if the
Bulls are playing a game Mourning never considered.

"It's more than athletic ability," says Jordan. "There's that
mental strength you need, and he doesn't have it. If you can be
taken out of your game by another player, the way he is by
Dennis, then there's something missing."

Nothing devastates a serious man more than ridicule, and with
that weapon Chicago has been merciless. Two years ago in the
playoffs, Longley derided Mourning's offensive game as
one-dimensional. Last year, before Game 5 of the Eastern
Conference finals, Mourning approached Jordan and held out his
hand. Jordan rolled his eyes and looked away. Earlier this
season Rodman said that Mourning is no leader and will never win
a ring. Jordan didn't even bother to show up at the captains'
meeting before each of this year's Bulls-Heat games. Every time
Mourning plays Chicago, he can hear the laughing all over again.

"It took me by surprise," he says of Jordan's rebuff in the
playoffs. He pretends that it didn't bother him. Then he pauses
and begins again, and suddenly all the cool is gone. He leans
forward in his chair. "I respect Michael as a player," he says
slowly. "To tell the truth, I respect him so much that I hate
him. He's standing in the way of my accomplishing one of my
goals. I respect him so much that I want to beat him. So I hate
him."

The two men sitting against the wall that day were famous.
Anybody who cares about sports has an opinion on both. It was
the winter of 1995. Mourning had been with the Heat for more
than a month. But sometimes fame is a wall that even the famous
can't penetrate, and Riley still knew little about his
centerpiece. He wasn't sure how to handle Mourning, and what was
supposed to be a glorious first season in Miami for both men was
suddenly collapsing in a 12-26 slide. "There was pressure on him
and pressure on me," Riley says. "We had to go through this."
Mourning was working alone on the court when Riley walked over.
The two sat on the floor. They spoke a long time.

"Coach," Mourning began, "you don't know the things I've been
through in my life." So Mourning told him. He told Riley how he
grew up the only son of fiercely independent parents in
Chesapeake--his father, Alonzo, a machinist in the Portsmouth
shipyards; his mother, Julia, a devout Jehovah's Witness--and
how, when the tension from his parents' cracking marriage became
too much, 11-year-old Alonzo Mourning Jr. decided to leave home.
"My mother and father got a separation and were about to get a
divorce, so it was pretty much my decision who I wanted to live
with," Mourning remembers. "I had mixed feelings about my mother
and my father. I didn't want to show any type of favoritism, so
I decided not to live with either one.

"I'm sure it hurt them, but they never let me know. They
understood it too. And to tell you the truth, it was kind of
easy on them. I'm not saying they didn't want me. But with them
breaking up, and not having to take care of a kid.... But I
loved them dearly, and I still saw them on a regular basis."

For a year Alonzo lived in a group home in Chesapeake, thrown in
with a dozen other kids, some emotionally disturbed, all
unhappy. There were fights, tension, the feel of being 11 and
living with strangers in a strange place. At night Alonzo
thought of his family, wondered if he had done the right thing.
"I was lonely," he says, "but that was an adjustment I had to
make. And who's to say? I probably wouldn't have the attitude I
have, that fighting, that want to get it done, if I hadn't gone
through that. Regardless of what's in my way, if I can overcome
it, I will."

This isn't spin. At 12 Mourning met an extraordinary woman named
Fannie Threet, who had taken in dozens of foster kids over the
years. Her son, Robert (Bud) Threet, who was then 17, remembers
the first time he saw Fannie and Alonzo together. They were
sitting and talking quietly in the Threets' living room in
Chesapeake, and Bud was struck by how close they seemed already.
Soon after, Alonzo left the group home and moved in with the
Threets. He lived there until he left for Georgetown. "She
taught me how to be a young man," Mourning says of Fannie. And
he didn't look back.

"He never came to me," says Bud, who was the best man at
Alonzo's wedding. "And I never detected any signs from him of
remorse [about leaving his family]. He was like a sponge. He
would absorb information and resources. My mom was like a
resource. People would say to me, 'I guess you're keeping Alonzo
in line.' I'd say, 'On the contrary. He's got himself all mapped
out.' He knew what he wanted, and he wasn't going to let
anything get in his way."

By then Mourning had found basketball. When he started playing
seriously, at 13, he was no natural. Shorter guys made him feel
clumsy, foolish. But he played all the time, in cold, rain,
snow. "I never asked for anyone's sympathy," he says. "You know
why? I'd found one thing, and I channeled all my energy, all my
frustrations, into it. That was my way out."

Mourning didn't tell Riley what happened next, because this is
where the good started. Mourning attended basketball camps in
the summer, grew into his body, became a prodigy at Indian River
High. In the summer Lassiter was a consultant to Mourning's AAU
team. "We traveled across the country, and most players would
challenge him more than they should have," Lassiter says. "One
game, down in Florida, he had 27 blocked shots. He was playing a
team from New York, and they just challenged and challenged and
challenged. It was absurd."

Indian River won 51 straight games and the 1987 Virginia Class
AAA championship. Recruiting letters addressed to Mourning piled
up like snowdrifts. Georgetown seemed like the perfect place for
him. Not only was it Ewing territory, but in Coach Thompson,
Mourning also had a protective father figure to replace
Lassiter. Early in his freshman year, however, Mourning was
introduced by teammate John Turner to Rayful Edmond III, a
basketball junkie who, it turned out, was also a drug kingpin in
Washington, D.C. Mourning was with Edmond at numerous dinners,
games, nightclubs. "He wasn't very flashy, no flashy cars or
gold jewelry," Mourning says. "When I found out about the money
he was bringing into D.C., it shocked the hell out of me."
Mourning was never accused of any wrongdoing, but by the time
Thompson stepped in and told Edmond to stay away from Mourning,
"it was," as Mourning says, "way too late." A year later
Mourning was called into a courtroom as a defense witness in
Edmond's trial for drug trafficking, and he denied any knowledge
of Edmond's criminal acts. Edmond was convicted and sentenced to
life in prison. Mourning has never gotten over the embarrassment
caused by their friendship. He told Riley that, too.

He also let Riley know that, he recalls, "regardless of what's
there to slow me down, I'm determined to get it done." He told
Riley to ride him as hard as he wanted, to take him to task, to
push any motivational buttons. "Whatever it takes," Mourning
said. "I'm willing to go through it because I want to win."

When that talk was finished, Riley knew what he had needed to
know: Mourning cared, maybe too much. Mourning was a player to
build around. "He's an honest man," Riley says. "He's not going
to bull---- me." More, Riley began to learn that there is a
Mourning quite different from the one the public sees. When
Mourning's contract expired in 1996, Riley re-signed him rather
than go after O'Neal. "There's a perception out there that he
might be a bad guy, one of these young and restless '90s NBA
players," Riley says. "He's a fierce, independent competitor,
and he has strong positions on things he believes in, but he
really cares about kids. He's not one of these bull---- guys who
says he does charity things. He does them. He does things that
people don't know."

This is the common song about Mourning, sung by Brown and
Hardaway and anyone else who has had his faraway impressions
dispelled by close contact. The further you get Mourning from
basketball, the more charming he becomes, because it's the game
that riles him. Basketball is where he bullied his fear and
loneliness, and even he is puzzled by how the game determines
his mood. "I don't know what it is," he says. "That adrenaline,
that intensity, is what gets me up to play. But it's hard to
come down."

That he can be a jerk about so many small things--the wrong
question, the wrong look, the wrong reporter--is inexcusable in
someone so fortunate, but to give up that hostility would,
Mourning believes, rob him of his edge. He consoles himself with
the thought that, on life's big things, he's better than people
think.

In the last five years Mourning's work for children has been so
consistent and wide-ranging that it's impossible to consider it
the typical do-good deed advised by an agent. Last summer in
Miami, Mourning made dozens of phone calls and micromanaged
scores of details for Zo's Summer Groove, which included a
concert, a charity basketball game and a banquet, and raised
more than $200,000 for two organizations: the Miami-based
Children's Home Society, and 100 Black Men of South Florida, an
organization that offers mentoring and other programs to black
youths in the Miami area. He also paid $49,347 to repair the
roof and gym of an elementary school in Washington, D.C. He put
down $50,000 to endow scholarships at his old high school. And
on Dec. 22 in Miami he hosted his annual Christmas party for the
Children's Home Society, telling the kids in an emotional
speech, "You all inspire me to keep working. You all keep the
fire burning in me. I love you."

All those were public affairs, heavily reported. But no one, not
even Mourning's business manager, knew that last year when
Mourning was told that the family of one of the Heat ball boys
was about to lose its house, he wrote out a check for $20,000.
Few know that he has built houses for his father and mother and
Fannie Threet, too, and that he is putting six cousins through
college, threatening to cut off payment if they don't bring home
good grades. While playing in Charlotte from 1992 to '95,
Mourning made countless unpublicized solo visits to foster
homes, and he has continued the practice in Miami by frequently
stopping by the McLamore Center, a shelter for abandoned, abused
and neglected children. "If he wasn't doing this just for the
kids, he'd show up with an entourage," says Sara Herald,
executive director of the southeastern division of the
Children's Home Society. "I've had people do that--they think
visiting the McLamore Center is taking a tour. He comes, and I
just leave him there with them."

When he's finished, Mourning doesn't walk out filled with cheer.
"It rekindles a lot of thought, seeing those kids and how they
live," he says. He remembers how it was for him. He doesn't like
it. He'll often confront Herald about conditions at the center,
demanding, "Why don't they have clothes? Why haven't you fixed
this place up?" Often, when he sees a story in the paper about
an adult abusing a child, Mourning will remark that he'd like to
kill the abuser.

Last fall he went home from McLamore and dropped a bomb on
Tracy: "You should see how they're living. It's not fair. We
have a lot of work to do over there. We have to give them places
to sleep. I think we should adopt." In the past months he and
Tracy have grown more committed to the idea.

Sometimes Tracy laughs it off when a stranger approaches her and
asks, "How can you be married to him? How can you put up with
him?" Who has time to explain? Who wants to hear it? Yes, her
husband can be testy, but his passion spills into everything he
does, and his ups are more memorable than his downs.

When Tracy and Alonzo met, as teenagers, he told her, "You and I
are going to be in touch a long time," and he never relented.
You think he's intense on the court? You should've seen him in
the delivery room in August 1996, trying to guide Tracy through
12 hours of labor. "Are you O.K.?" he'd shout. "Get her drugs!
Do something for her!"

Then he held her hand and leg when the baby started coming,
grabbing so tight that he left bruises on her. And when Alonzo
III (Trey) finally emerged at 12:49 a.m., his father cried and
told Tracy she was beautiful and yelled into the phone to a
friend, "My son is here!" Eventually a nurse took the baby away
for observation, but Alonzo Jr. followed. He went upstairs and
sat, watching his son twitch and squirm. He didn't sleep. He
simply stared at the boy in wonder, and he didn't leave until
morning.

Mourning threw the first elbow, a hard right that sent Rodman
careening along the baseline. There was going to be trouble.
Sure enough, here came Rodman, sailing through the air after
Mourning sank an easy layup and decking him with an elbow to the
neck that would've done Randy Savage proud. This was the moment.
For days leading up to this Jan. 7 showdown, the talk in Miami
was, Dennis has gotten into Mourning's head. There was so much
discussion of this that the scary vision of Rodman running amok
in Mourning's skull became something of a civic image. Now, with
the Heat leading by nine just before halftime, Mourning was
skidding on his butt, his face darkening like a storm cloud.
Play stopped. Rodman smirked. Mourning charged, curses flying.
That's it. Dennis has done it again....

Not this time. No, this time all of Rodman's needling backfired.
Mourning backed away, Rodman got hit with a technical foul, and
Bulls coach Phil Jackson ran toward the ref, fluttering his arms
like the scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. Seconds later Jackson
was ejected. The Miami lead expanded to 13, then exploded into
the 20s. By the time the game ended, the Heat had won 99-72,
Chicago didn't look invincible, and Rodman was being asked
whether Mourning had psyched him out. Rodman chuckled, as if
even this loss was part of a grand plan to bait Mourning. "He
bites every time," the Worm said. "Twenty-million-dollar man,
get your mind right."

Whether Mourning can do just that has become the riddle of his
career. The physical side of his game is set, weaknesses and
all. Among centers Mourning will forever be classed below Ewing,
O'Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson, but it's amazing
that someone of his talent can so often mentally dissolve on the
court. Teams know they can guard him aggressively, because
Mourning is a notoriously bad passer out of the double team. He
has also become a safe man to foul down the stretch, because his
free throw shooting has tumbled consistently since he entered
the league--from 78.1% when he was a rookie to 66.1% this season
(at week's end). In last year's playoffs Mourning shot an
abysmal 55.5% from the line. In the final two losses to Chicago,
he made just two field goals and turned the ball over 16 times.

When he's bad, he looks worse than anyone. The flying elbows,
the untimely fouls? "'Zo is an awkward guy," Hardaway says.
"He's awkward on the court. All the stuff he does is because
he's off-balance; that's why his arms are flailing. It's not
intentional."

Strange as this description of an elite athlete sounds, Riley
agrees with it. "'Zo's style is always going to be rough," he
says. "He's unorthodox. His pivot foot on the left side of the
court is different from his pivot foot on the right side. Other
guys have a certain fluidity about their games. When 'Zo has a
bad game or is not very efficient, his game looks uglier. When
he dominates he does the same thing, but he finishes and runs
the floor and makes free throws and jumpers."

Yet, with all those strikes against him, Mourning is a respected
force in the NBA. The best parts of his game--shot blocking and
defense--are a product of commitment and intensity. Mourning
understood early that his most valuable natural asset was his
attitude, and he funneled every bit of energy into the part of
the game most affected by it. Mutombo may be a purer shot
blocker, but Mourning's maniacal devotion makes him every bit
the defender that Robinson or Olajuwon is. "He's relentless,"
says former NBA coach and current Heat broadcaster Jack Ramsay.
"I worked with him when he was with Charlotte and told him,
''Zo, you don't have to go after every shot.' He's just obsessed
with blocking every shot, even when he doesn't have a chance."

That such single-mindedness sometimes makes him fly out of the
play doesn't matter. "He absolutely is one of the elite," says
Phoenix Suns coach Danny Ainge. "When you're Pat Riley and
trying to build a team, that's what you need. When you have your
best player, who makes $15 million a year, working as hard in
games, in practice, on defense, doing all the little things it
takes to win, it's so much easier, and everybody else's effort
rises to another level. He's worth every penny."

"I love him," says Charles Barkley. "He's a serious warrior.
He's a man. He goes after every shot, and he works really hard.
That's all you can ask of any player."

But Riley asks for more. As the NBA's post-Jordan era
approaches, no one knows who the next great champion will be.
Neither Grant Hill nor O'Neal nor Robinson has yet demonstrated
Jordan's mettle in the clutch, but Mourning is the star most
often questioned about his mental approach. "He has the ability
to win a championship, there's no doubt in my mind," Riley says.
"But can we mature as a team--can he mature enough to be able to
find a way to win those games at the moment of truth?"

Perhaps the win over the Bulls in January hinted at an answer.
Mourning never lost control during the game, but the strangest
thing was how subdued he was afterward, with none of his usual
fist-pumping victory gyrations. He refused to let the triumph
become huge. While his nemesis sat in the Chicago locker room
promising a different tale in the playoffs--"They won one,"
Rodman said. "So what? We'll still kick their asses in
May"--Mourning echoed the first of those sentiments. This game
was only a step. "It's just one of 82," he said. "We haven't
forgotten how bad they've beaten us when it counted."

Then came another question about Rodman, and Mourning snapped.
"Why've we got to keep talking about Dennis?" he said. "Goddam.
I don't want to talk about Dennis. Please stop asking me
questions about that fool. He's got problems. I don't want to
talk about him anymore."

One night last summer Mourning stood before a packed house of
700 at Miami's James L. Knight Center. It was the black-tie
auction and charity dinner of Zo's Summer Groove, a moment of
triumph, but Mourning used it to make a plea. "If you can learn
not to form those perceptions of me based on what you see on
television and know that Alonzo Mourning is a person too, that
would be greatly appreciated," he said, his face lighting up
with relief as the words finally came out. "You can approach me
and ask for an autograph.... I won't put you in a headlock, like
Rodman."

This is a common theme for Mourning now. When he went to
Charlotte as a rookie, he didn't care what anyone thought. He
trusted few people. "I had my guard up," he says. "I thought,
I'm going to establish myself. Nobody's going to move me.
Nobody's going to control me. I was like a loose cannon. I had
20-something technicals my first year, got ejected I don't know
how many times. I went off the deep end. I hurt myself.

"But I think I've gotten better. I look at situations
differently now, I handle situations differently. With my son,
I'm setting that example. Instead of reacting, I think."

In April 1996, while Earl Lee Nolton Jr., a close friend of
Mourning's for nearly a decade, was looking after Mourning's
house in Potomac, Md., the house was raided by the FBI as part
of a drug investigation targeting Nolton. The day before, Nolton
had been arrested and charged with distributing cocaine. He
pleaded guilty to one count of distributing crack and was
sentenced to 21 years and 10 months in prison. Mourning wasn't
living at the house at the time of the raid and wasn't part of
the investigation. Nolton "ended up stabbing me in the back,"
Mourning says. "I was trying to help him out. But it wasn't his
name in big, bold print; it was mine. Now I always watch my
associations. I've got too much to lose to go through something
like that again."

On the court Mourning may be less explosive than he was in his
rookie season, but he's quietly grown more intense. For the last
two years he has refused to engage in pregame conversations,
even with old friends. Few players go back together as far as
Mutombo and Mourning: They were roommates at Georgetown, and
when Mourning underwent surgery last fall, Mutombo flew to Miami
to be with him. When Mutombo's daughter was baptized in
Washington, D.C., last year, Alonzo flew out with Tracy and Trey
to be there. "He's a great man," Mutombo says. But it mystifies
Mutombo that when he telephones or walks up to Mourning before
the two are to play each other, Mourning says, "We can't talk,"
or simply looks away.

"His approach is different from any other player's," Mutombo
says. "I see players go to the game and not dislike their
friends but still be serious. That's O.K. But this is
unbelievable. You just ask yourself, Why? But now I understand
it. I say, if that's how he wants to live his life...."

Still, Mourning has made progress. One afternoon recently he
drove his customized Porsche to Dinner Key, near Coconut Grove,
for a photo shoot, and within five minutes of his arrival a
handful of ragged men who were fishing there had emerged from
under a tree. Toasted by the sun and the contents of a few
bottles, they rained it on Mourning:

"What happened in Chicago?"

"You missed all those free throws!"

"Who's the best Heat center? Rony Seikaly?"

"You screwed me, man! You missed those free throws, and you
looked like this!" At that, one bandy-legged geezer began
setting up at an imaginary foul line, bouncing an invisible
ball, licking his fingers and hands, doing a mean caricature of
Mourning at the foul line--and missing one shot after another
while laughter filled the air.

Mourning took it all. In fact, he was cackling along with his
critics, slapping his hand on the steering wheel. "I'm not going
to do that this year!" he yelled. "I'm going to tighten up!"
Then they all howled together, and Mourning felt so good that he
signed a couple of dollar bills and handed them out. He drove
off muttering, "That's what I need."

It wasn't that bad, the laughter. It just about made his day.

COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY ANITA KUNZ [Drawing of Alonzo Mourning holding mask of his face]COLOR PHOTO: MANNY MILLAN LATER, BLONDIE Rodman usually gets Mourning's goat, but in this case he got a sharp elbow instead. [Alonzo Mourning and Dennis Rodman in game]COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO STUCK IN SECOND Try as he might, Mourning can't muscle his way into the first tier of NBA centers, where Shaq already has a foothold. [Alonzo Mourning and Shaquille O'Neal in game]COLOR PHOTO: RAY AMATI/NBA PHOTOS YO, 'ZO, CHILL Mourning is the only Heat player whose intensity Riley would like to tone down as Miami heads into the playoffs. [Alonzo Mourning]COLOR PHOTO: BILL FRAKES DADDY LONGLEGS Alonzo's trademark public scowl turns into a broad smile when Tracy and Trey show up in the picture. [Trey Mourning, Alonzo Mourning and Tracy Mourning]
"I was laughed at," he says. "And the people who laughed at me
didn't realize the impact they had."
If Mourning hadn't left home as a kid, he says, he "wouldn't
have that attitude, that fighting."
"He's up, he's down, he's frustrated, he's joyous," Riley says.
"He embodies the soul of this team."
Tracy laughs it off when a stranger asks, "How can you be married
to him? How can you put up with him?"