Slumped on a chair in the visiting locker room in San Antonio last Saturday, knees and ankles wrapped in ice, an exhausted Alonzo Mourning gazed at the ceiling. He'd just spent 32 enervating minutes in combat with David Robinson and sometimes, for good measure, Tim Duncan, and--as has been the case far too often during this down-and-up-and-down-again Miami Heat season--his estimable efforts had gone for naught in an 89-79 Spurs victory.
The questions wouldn't stop rolling around in Mourning's mind: Can we keep charging and reach the playoffs, or will we, as now appears to be the case, fall short? (The Heat was 31-37 and four games out in the race for the final postseason spot in the Eastern Conference at week's end.) And: Is there anything more that I could have done against the Spurs? (Mourning had 16 points and 11 rebounds, his 20th double double of the season.) Then came the tougher self-examination: Will I feel that soul-crushing, bone-deep fatigue tomorrow morning? Will my blood pressure be elevated? Will my creatine levels be up? Will my body chemistry, electrolytes and potassium and all the stuff that the average person never thinks about go haywire? Will I need adjustments in my medication? And what kind of unknown toll is this horrible invader--this disease with an unpronounceable name, this thing that I sometimes talk to as if it's an unwanted guest eating my leftovers and smudging my CDs--taking on my body right now?
Here's one question he won't ask himself, though: Why am I still doing this? Mourning answered that in October 2000, when he learned that he had developed focal glomerulosclerosis, in which protein leaks into the urine because the filters of the kidney have been damaged. Even as others were talking about the possibility of dialysis or a transplant--and about the likelihood of retirement--Mourning said he was coming back. Period. "Quit isn't in my vocabulary," he said last week. "I love the game too much. The competition, the camaraderie, the feel of it. It's everything to me."
Still, even if his doctors said the disease was in "partial remission," that didn't mean Mourning wasn't afraid. There were nights, shortly after that diagnosis, when he tossed and turned in bed, face in his hands, wondering if he would die. "If you're human," he says, "you're going to be afraid." But Mourning is nothing if not a battler. He chose to leave home at age 11 when his parents separated, then navigated through the Chesapeake, Va., foster-care system. He labored to get into Georgetown, where he followed his boyhood hero, Patrick Ewing. Battle, battle, battle--Mourning knew no other way. Remember Hoya Paranoia? Mourning picked up Ewing's torch, ignoring entreaties to show his good-guy side and his intelligence. Early in his NBA career with the Charlotte Hornets he seemed a joyless, brooding man, an early version of Rasheed Wallace. Marriage and two children softened him a little, but Mourning is still crusty and no-nonsense, disinclined to suffer fools lightly, inclined to keep his own counsel.
But then...only someone with hard edges, with a lot of steel inside, could do what Mourning is doing now. "It's a tribute to him, his value system, his work ethic," says Indiana Pacers coach Isiah Thomas, a man with a few hard edges himself. "He's getting paid a lot of money, and he has a rare disease. The average American would probably say, 'I'm done,' take the money and go. But he still wants to go out and earn his paycheck and help his team win." Another one of Mourning's Georgetown homeboys, Dikembe Mutombo of the Philadelphia 76ers, sometimes can't talk about Mourning without tears coming to his eyes. "To see him go on day to day, week after week, to the point where he is able to compete again almost at the same level as he used to is amazing," says Mutombo. "This guy has such a strong heart."
At the beginning of the season Mourning struggled, and so did the Heat, losing 18 of its first 23. Suddenly, though, Mourning became electric: His soft fadeaways turned into strong excursions to the hoop, his botched follow-ups became dunks. Miami began to beat elite teams and was bloodlessly efficient in the second half of back-to-backs, winning 11 in a row over a three-month stretch, a sign of a team with toughness. "Zo was the catalyst," says power forward Brian Grant. "Think what the man had gone through. Getting stuck with needles, tests, his blood on fire some days from the medicine, dizzy on other days, some days throwing up...." Grant stops and shakes his dreadlocks. "To see that commitment meant something to this team."
There are a number of theories on Mourning's resurgence. His doctors, Gerald B. Appel of New York City and Victor Richards of Miami, cite the changes they made in his daily eight-pill regimen in late December, though they won't discuss the specifics of the medication. Mourning is convinced that his hard work and conditioning drills simply started paying dividends. Heat coach Pat Riley, as is his wont, thinks the change was mental. "Zo broke through and said, I am not going to let this make me an average player. I am not going to play this fatigue game," says Riley. "He never said those words to me, but his actions and the look on his face told me."
What Mourning did on the court was one thing; what he did to get ready was something else. On many evenings his agent, Jeffrey Wechsler, would drop by Mourning's house in Miami to find him working out with weights in his garage. "That was after a hard Riley practice and a hard postpractice workout," says Wechsler. "Zo always said the same thing. 'Got to get the legs back in shape. The legs are the key.'"
Partly because he takes immune suppressants, Mourning is more prone to everyday maladies, such as the viral infection that kept him out of five games in November. He must guard, too, against the disease taking over mentally, preoccupying him. Former San Antonio star Sean Elliott, who also suffers from focal glomerulosclerosis and who developed pneumonia during the 1999-2000 season after a kidney transplant, is now a self-professed "germ freak." He washes his hands constantly, carries his own pens to sign autographs and worries about shaking hands with strangers. Mourning says he can't live like that, but he has taken notice of Elliott's precautions. (Elliott, now a Spurs broadcaster, works with Mourning on Zo's Fund for Life, which has raised $1.2 million for kidney-disease research, a sum matched by Mourning.)
For Mourning there's also the strain of dealing with the concerns of loved ones near and far. His wife, Tracy, has said very little publicly (she declined an interview for this story), and Alonzo says that, while she worries constantly, she has accepted his decision to keep playing. But others have made their fears public, including former Heat point guard Tim Hardaway, now with the Denver Nuggets, who gets most of his information from his wife, Yolanda, who talks frequently to Tracy. Recently Hardaway said Mourning should retire. "I hear all that from friends and family members, and I don't dismiss it," Mourning says, "but they're on the outside looking in, basing their concerns on their own caring nature. I'm not going to retire because they say so."
The hardest thing about Mourning's struggle is the fatigue. It's not inherently dramatic, watching a large man slump down and place both hands on his knees, and he tries not to let the strain show. But there are many days and nights, during games or while doing nothing, when he feels drained. His doctors don't know why. "Is it caused by the disease or the medication?" asks Appel. "To a certain extent we're dealing with a class of one here. We simply don't have another 6'10", 260-pound world-class athlete expending this kind of energy and battling this."
The courageousness of Mourning's fight aside, the stone-cold reality is that he's not the same player he once was. Numbers (this season's averages of 15.8 points and 8.4 rebounds through Sunday were down from previous career marks of 20.9 and 10.0) tell only part of the story. Most NBA scouts give some variation on these themes: Mourning can be his old self only in spurts; he no longer "explodes to the ball" when he goes to block a shot; he rarely beats his man down the court. Mourning doesn't need to hear all this--and be prepared for a storm to darken his face if it's suggested--because he has never claimed that he is 100% back. "The last time I was at my strongest was Game 7 against the Knicks," he said, speaking of the Heat's 83-82 loss in the Eastern Conference semifinals on May 21, 2000. "It used to be that I could play four games in five nights and go 40 minutes in every one without even thinking. Now it's dropped to 32 to 35 minutes a game. But can I still be as effective in those reduced minutes as I once was? Yes, I can."
As Mourning sat glumly at his locker last Saturday, he was asked about the Heat's fading playoff prospects. His eyes darkened at the word fade. "Do you think this team is ready to quit?" he said. "Do you think I'm going to quit? You know where I'd be if I quit? Probably on dialysis or something." Well, no one in his right mind ever suggested that Mourning was going to quit. But that doesn't answer the harder question: Can he ever get back to being that feisty warrior whom the Indiana Pacers' Jermaine O'Neal calls "the old-school Alonzo Mourning"? He pondered that for a long moment.
"I'll tell you this," he said. "If there's any way it can be done, I'm going to do it." There is no reason to doubt that.