Say, Ain't It 'Zo? Despite a dire kidney disease, Alonzo Mourning of the Heat made a surprise return--in plenty of time for the playoffs

April 08, 2001

Alonzo Mourning was locked in a low-post slam dance with
Milwaukee Bucks center Ervin Johnson. Referee Joe Crawford kept
an eye on the battle, watching as Mourning put a shoulder into
Johnson and tried to move him from the basket, as if attempting
to push a stalled car. "Watch the body," Crawford warned.
"Careful with the body, 'Zo."

Mourning, the Miami Heat's 6'10" center, has been getting that
advice in various forms ever since doctors told him last October
that he had a form of focal glomerulosclerosis, a debilitating
kidney disease that they expected would sideline him for the
entire 2000-01 season and perhaps end his career. He defied that
prognosis by returning to action on March 27, but his doctors,
who approved his comeback, made it clear that Mourning, 31, isn't
cured. Neither is the Heat, judging from the rustiness Mourning
showed in his first few games and the difficulty his teammates
had incorporating him into the offense.

The euphoria over Mourning's surprise return was tempered by the
Heat's loss to the Toronto Raptors in his first game back, a
101-92 defeat in which Mourning came off the bench to play 19
minutes and score nine points on 3-of-11 shooting. Miami lost
again two nights later, 104-96 to the Bucks, as Mourning had
eight points in 19 minutes. He was more effective in a 97-90 win
over the Chicago Bulls last Saturday, with 12 points and five
rebounds in 16 minutes, but it had become evident that Mourning's
comeback would not immediately elevate the Heat--which was 43-29
through Sunday and stood third in the Eastern Conference--to the
level of the conference leaders, the Philadelphia 76ers and
Milwaukee.

Because of his dulled skills and diminished stamina, Mourning is
at this point nothing more than a solid backup center. "I never
thought it would be easy," he said on Friday. "I knew coming back
was going to be one of the biggest challenges in my life." The
challenge is complicated by the uncertainty over how his body,
with the disease in remission, will react to increased physical
activity. "I don't have a crystal ball, but I don't think it will
hurt him to play," says one of his physicians, Gerald B. Appel.
"If he were my son, I would let him play."

Mourning's ailment attacks the filters in the kidneys that remove
waste from the blood. He takes as many as 14 pills a day to help
control the disease, but he understands there's no guarantee that
the medication will continue to work, whether he plays or not. "I
know the future isn't promised," Mourning says. "Dr. Appel tells
me that in six months I could be worse off or I could be better.
Every time I step on the court, I'm scared."

If Mourning stays healthy, he could cause a shuffling of Miami's
rotation and a ruffling of feathers. "Some adjustments are going
to have to be made, but you can't tell exactly what they're going
to be," forward Brian Grant said before the Bucks game. "We've
had to get used to playing without 'Zo, and now we have to get
used to having him in there. It's a good problem to have, but you
can't expect everything to click right away."

The best-case scenario is that the rest of the season will
unfold roughly the way the game with Milwaukee did--with Miami
playing raggedly at the start and gradually getting better.
Mourning entered the game midway through the first quarter, and
teammates immediately forced two passes to him. Both were
stolen. Moments later Mourning stumbled while trying to make a
move in the low post and lost the ball. But he made his presence
felt on defense, most notably with a brilliant play on a Jason
Caffey dunk attempt. Mourning also converted four of eight shots.

Overall, it was an improvement over his first game but not enough
to suit him. "I'm playing awful," Mourning said after the
following day's practice. "I don't want to keep using the excuse
that I've been out six months. I don't want to use the excuse
that I'm taking all this medicine. I expect to perform at a
certain level."

Mourning's teammates haven't been so demanding of him. In fact,
they've been downright protective, both in their reviews of his
performance and in the way they treat him on the court. Because
his illness makes it important for him to stay hydrated, a member
of the Heat staff waits with a bottle of water whenever he comes
off the court. During a timeout against the Bucks, Mourning went
straight into the Miami huddle without getting the bottle.
Forward A.C. Green ran over to get the water for Mourning.
Careful with the body, 'Zo.

Riley can only hope that the players' concern and affection for
Mourning will help them accept the inevitable redefining of roles
as the offense is retooled to accommodate him. Forward Anthony
Mason, who joined the Heat in a trade with the Charlotte Hornets
before this season, is likely to be the most affected. He has
done an admirable job of filling in for Mourning as Miami's
primary low-post threat, but he'll have to give up some of those
back-to-the-basket touches. If Riley moves Mourning back into the
starting lineup--which he says he has no intention of doing
immediately--Mason, who started in the All-Star game only two
months ago, could be relegated to the bench, since Grant is sure
to be the starting power forward and Bruce Bowen has established
himself as a defensive stopper at small forward.

The moody Mason gives few clues as to whether he will accept such
a change without complaint. He even seems to enjoy being cryptic
on the matter. "I've never had a hard time adjusting," he says,
"but we'll see what happens." That Mason will be a free agent
this summer may affect his attitude. How well he adjusts to being
part of a rotation up front with Mourning and Grant could also
help determine how vigorously the Heat tries to re-sign him and
how interested he'll be in staying.

"It should not be presumed that Mase can't handle this," Riley
says. "It will be a test for everybody on the team. If it's only
about winning, it will work out. If it's about anything else, it
won't. 'Zo's a positive, not a negative. If anybody has a selfish
point of view, he needs to right himself."

After the win over Chicago, the Heat had only 10 games to right
itself before the playoffs and to find out how much it can
expect from Mourning in the postseason. That's precious little
time, as Mourning realizes. "It's time to go from being 'Zo the
patient to being 'Zo the player," he says, but for the rest of
this season, it will be impossible to separate the two.
Regardless of how well or how long Mourning plays, everyone who
watches him will probably have the same thought: Careful with
the body, 'Zo.

COLOR PHOTO: GARY DINEEN/NBA ENTERTAINMENT Early riser Though Mourning (far right) looked rusty, the Heat hopes that he will bolster its defense in the postseason.

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