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Mourning Aims to Net Title Before Too Late

October 19, 2003|Rachel Nichols | The Washington Post

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — All this NBA season, it will look as if Alonzo Mourning is playing basketball. It will appear he is blocking shots, joking around with his teammates, sinking his free throws, but this shouldn't fool you, because what Mourning really will be doing is much more complicated, and so much more desperate.

What Mourning will be doing is running a race. The terms of the race will be somewhat unfair, since Mourning will have to carry around his opponent -- a kidney disorder -- inside of him. He'll have to support it, treat it, nurture it. And still it could reach over and trip him, or even worse, knock him out of basketball completely.

"Eventually, I will need a kidney transplant. At some point, I'll run out of time," Mourning says after a New Jersey Nets practice. He's been told there's no way to know when he'll need this transplant. It could be 10 years from now. It could be 10 weeks. All he really knows is that if he wants to win an NBA championship before he's forced from the game for good, he'd better do it soon.

"The window of opportunity is closing," he says. "If I'm going to do this, I need to do it right now."

This isn't what Mourning expected his life to be like, not at 33. Of all the things he worried would betray him, his body was last on the list, and so he was absolutely, positively, hide-under-the-covers shocked three years ago when doctors told him he had a kidney disorder that could kill him.

Since then, he's missed a year of basketball, come back, been knocked out for another year and been cleared to play again. He's worked through feelings of guilt and loyalty he felt toward the Miami Heat and Coach Pat Riley; he became a free agent. Most importantly, he's selected new ground -- New Jersey of all places -- to plant the seeds of what he hopes will become a trophy.

His decision to sign a four-year, $20 million deal with the Nets this summer might have been the least difficult. While Mourning describes sitting out last year as "torture," he still watched plenty of basketball on television, each night trying to picture himself on court with a different team.

"Whenever I've been successful in my career, it's been on a team that had a great point guard, so I started with teams that had that," he says. "Then I weighed some other stuff, like having been on the East Coast my whole career, that [Nets coach] Byron Scott is an extension of Pat Riley.

"The other thing is that my doctor is here, which is a huge convenience for me. So that made my decision so much easier."

Gerald Appel is the director of clinical nephrology at Columbia University; when Mourning was playing in Miami, Appel would examine him once a month. Now Appel examines Mourning once a week, which should help regulate the medicines Mourning must take.

The Nets have tried to put other safeguards in place to help Mourning, who also suffers from anemia as a result of his disease, but because Mourning's condition, called focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, is by nature unpredictable, there's only so much anyone can do.

No one knows this better than Mourning himself. Looking robust and chiseled at 260 pounds, he talks a lot these days about overcoming obstacles, about the tribulations faced by everyone from Lance Armstrong to George Washington Carver to Martin Luther King Jr., about having a positive mental approach. But he also knows there is a demon lurking in his midsection, which is why he also talks a lot about new teammate Jason Kidd and the fast-break offense he hopes will finally help win the championship that has eluded him.

In a way, Kidd and Mourning are in New Jersey because of each other. "I told him that if he wants to come here, I'm staying, so once he called and said he was in, I said, 'All right, I guess that means I'm in, too,' " recalls Kidd, who was also a free agent this summer.

"I wanted to be around someone who was a warrior, a veteran guy who was hungry to win a championship. But I didn't even realize just how much he's dying to get out there and play. He wants this so badly, you can tell all the time."

Mourning wants this so badly that when Scott called him over the summer to gently suggest Mourning come to training camp a month early to learn the Nets offense, Mourning volunteered to come six weeks ahead instead. He wants it so badly he gets cranky when he's taken out of a drill at practice, and while he's happy to joke around with his teammates on the bus or on the plane, once they step on to the court, he's quick to remind them that to him, this is more than a game.

"He has a little bit of rust on his post moves, on his shot, but you can already see him shaking that off, and I'm getting pretty excited watching him play," Scott says. "Most of all, here's a guy who truly plays every game as if it might be his last. I tell the other guys to play like that all the time, but here's a guy who truly believes it, so hopefully it will rub off on them."

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