Usually when an inner circle Hall of Fame-type player retires, we take the opportunity to examine his career closely with one of our FAQs. Well, Alonzo Mourning just recently retired and he’s not quite good enough to be inner circle material. Still, Zo has both an interesting personal story and he was a very good player and we’re interesting enough to plunge forward to see what we can learn about him personally and as a player from a close examination of his career.
Zo The College Years
Was Zo a Phenom?
Mourning first became well known as one of the nation’s top college prospects in 1987. At that point, Mourning was a 6′9 senior in Chesapeake, Virginia but was considered the prize for college recruiters. Mourning ended up with John Thompson at Georgetown, where he followed the footsteps of the Hoyas’ previous center great, Patrick Ewing. Thompson acknowledged that having Ewing in his past helped get another great center. According to Bill Reynolds’ “Big Hoops”: “Patrick going to Georgetown had something to do with it…I went to [Mourning's] room and Patrick’s picture was all over the place.” In the spring of 1988, while still a high school senior, Mourning even earned an invite to tryout for the 1988 Olympic team, coincidentally coached by Thompson.
Mourning played quite well at the tryouts. According to Alexander Wolff’s May 30, 1988 Sport Illustrated article on the tryouts: “In the opening five minutes of the second half of the first game, with his team trailing by nine. Mourning sank two free throws, completed a three-point play in traffic, hit a couple of jumpers and blocked two shots. When he left the floor, his team led by two, and his primary victim, Syracuse’s Rony Seikaly, was left wondering what he had missed in high school. ‘People started off asking me if Alonzo’s here because he’s going to Georgetown,’ said Thompson before Saturday’s scrimmage. ‘I don’t hear that question any longer .’” Mourning was one of the last cuts on the team before being sent off to college.
Mourning had a great freshman year at Georgetown, named second-team All Big East and defensive player of the year. The Hoyas made it to the Elite Eight, where they lost to Duke, who had its own freshman prodigy, Christian Laettner, who outplayed Mourning in the game. Mourning appeared set up to have a similar storied college career as Ewing (he won only one title but Ewing went to three Final Fours). Mourning, however, never had quite so much team success in college. In 1989-90, Mourning did not improve much over his freshman numbers but the team was very good (they also had Dikembe Mutombo), only to be upset in the second round of the tournament by Xavier (which was led by two bona fide NBA forwards Tyrone Hill and Derek Strong). In 1990-91, the team also struggled and were only a middling seed in the tournament. They drew the legendary UNLV team with Larry Johnson,Greg Anthony, and Stacey Augmon on the second round of the tournament. The Hoyas hung tough but just didn’t have the guard play to match Vegas and lost 62-54.
How Good Was Mourning in College?
After three years, Mourning was still considered a hot prospect but the perception was that he had some issues. The issues were as follows:
-The team wasn’t really winning much like they did in the Ewing Era: This was true but Zo was not really to blame. He was playing well and they only had two really good guards during Mourning’s tenure (Charles Smith in 1988-89 and Mark Tillmon in 1989-90). The rest of the time, the supporting cast was surprisingly weak.
-Zo seemed to be stagnating statistically: There is some truth to this. Check his stats:
But was this really stagnation? Seems to me that there is a much more likely intervening cause. Mourning had moved to forward after his freshman year to accommodate the bigger and more lumbering Mutombo. On the wing, Zo’s blocks went down and there were fewer rebounds available with Deke too (Mutombo grabbed 10.5 and 12.2 rpg in 1989-90 and 1990-91 respectively) not too mention how many blocks Mutombo took as well. So Zo’s middle college year declines represented more of a change in position than a problem with his growth as a player. Indeed, when Mutombo was gone in 1991-92, Zo instantly reverted to the dominant center he was as a freshman. Indeed, Thompson told Sports Illustrated in 1992 that: “Last year Zo would have gotten all the blocked shots and rebounds Dikembe got if I’d put Zo at center.”
-Zo had some “personal” issues: Mourning was never really known as warm and fuzzy back then. He played with manic intensity and talked plenty of smack, most famously in a game against UConn where he allegedly shouted anti-Semitic remarks at Nedev Henefeld, the Huskies’ Israeli star. Henefeld dismissed the remarks as “just two players playing hard, just something that happens.” Henefeld was also quick to note that ‘The next time we played…Mourning came to me and said he was sorry. It wasn’t a big thing at all.” Still, there was a perception, somewhat correct, that Mourning wasn’t so easy to deal with personally. He wasn’t a bad seed or a dog on the court but he was outspoken and didn’t feel any need to be pleasant.
In Mourning’s senior season, the team still struggled but Mourning was excellent (as we see above). He was taken second overall by the Hornets in 1992 NBA Draft (behind Shaquille O’Neal). Mourning wasn’t Shaq but he probably the hottest prospect coming into the pros besides Shaq in the early 1990s.
Shall We Psychoanalyze Zo?
Mourning’s anger and intensity was less of an issue as his career moved on. Attitudes changed in the America and the notion of an outspoken and not-so-happy black athlete was just less of a big deal. Still, Zo’s attitude was unique and different. Sam Smith described Mourning (then a third-year NBA player in 1994) thusly in “Second Coming,”: “[assistant coach John] Bach called [Mourning] ‘the Tasmanian Devil’ the way he’d whirl around in a frenzy, spasms of rage exploding like Mourning was fighting himself as much as his opponent. It seemed he was always angry, hitting a backboard support, screaming at himself, almost without perspective or a sense of humor. One time, veteran referee Jake O’Donnell came to the Hornets’ bench and said if Mourning didn’t stop talking to himself he was going to throw him out of the game.”
We can’t know exactly what drove Mourning but some writers have hinted towards origins lying in events that caused him to leave his birth home for foster parents as a teenager. Smith described Mourning’s childhood too: “[w]hen Mourning was eleven and then an only child, his parents divorced and he entered the Virginia child care system, living in several foster homes before finally being raised by an elderly woman named Fanny Threet who would raise forty-nine children during her life as a foster parent. ‘I wasn’t comfortable with the situation that was evolving,’ Mourning said in an interview in 1994. ‘I didn’t want to live with my family.’…He refuses to discuss his situation any further. But it’s clear something terrible happened in that home, for eleven-year-olds just don’t opt to go into foster care.”
It doesn’t take Sigmund Freud to figure that Zo’s anger was visceral and probably rooted in the way he was treated as a child. Rumors did swirl that Mourning was abused based upon Mourning’s cryptic comments. In fact, there was no truth to rumor. Mourning published his own autobiography “Resilience” in 2008, where he finally explained his childhood decision to leave his home after his parents’ divorced: “[i]t wasn’t the worst situation in the world, and my parents were both great people, but the atmosphere was not good for me. Emotionally, I began acting out. I wasn’t normally a bad kid; I was actually a good kid. But all of a sudden I was in trouble all the time, and it was obvious, even to me, why that was happening. My parents and I went to a counseling session at the department of social services and that’s when I asked to be put into a group home for a while. My parents reluctantly agreed. Once I was in the group home, I saw kids with real problems, the kind that made mine seem like nothing….But I still didn’t want to go home….Just because I wasn’t in the worst situation didn’t mean my parents’ place was a good one. In the end, I got very lucky: I wound up with a woman named Fannie Threet, a local hero who as a foster mom helped raise forty-nine kids in Chesapeake….I am close with both my parents to this day, but I still call Ms. Threet ‘Mom’ too.”
Mourning in Charlotte
Mourning spent his first three years as a pro with the Charlotte Hornets with a promising young team. Zo was paired with Larry Johnson (22.1 ppg, 10.5 rpg, 18.9 PER in 1992-93 and had won Rookie of the Year in 1991-92), who looked like a star, and several good players (Muggsy Bogues, Kendall Gill, and Dell Curry). Year one, 1992-93, turned out pretty well. The Hornets started out well, slumped to .500 (35-35) before rallying to finish 44-38 to get the fifth seed in the playoffs. In the playoffs, Mourning had his most memorable Charlotte moment, when he hit a 20-footer to eliminate the Celtics in the first round. Mourning and the Hornets were smoked by his idol Ewing and the Knicks in round two but there was a nice foundation on which to build.
The Hornets hit bump in the road in 1993-94, going 41-41 and missing the playoffs. Mourning missed 20 games with injuries and LJ’s back problems emerged too, that limited him to 50 games and decreased his explosiveness drastically. In 1994-95, everyone was relatively healthy (LJ’s explosiveness had declined but he was still very effective) and Mourning was his usual self (21.3 ppg, 9.9 rpg). The Hornets also were defensively above average for the first time (9th in defensive efficiency after being below average Zo’s prior two seasons) and won a then franchise high 50 games. Unfortunately, the Hornets drew the Bulls who had just gotten back Michael Jordan from retirement. The Hornets lost 3-1, but not before whining about the officiating the whole time.
The Hornets fell apart thereafter. Mourning was to be a free agent after the 1995-96 season and he and his then super agent David Falk attempted to get an extension from Hornets owner George Shinn in the summer of 1995. Problem was that Shinn had previously given LJ an extension that was a disaster (Johnson developed serious back problems almost immediately after signing the deal). Shinn didn’t want to pay too much for Mourning and the impasse led to bad feelings and a trade to Miami (for Glen Rice, Matt Geiger, and Khalid Reeves) on the eve of the 1995-96 season. Stat-wise, Mourning was an All-Star in two of his three years and had about 20 ppg and 10 rpg in each year. It wasn’t clear if he would ever develop into anything more than he was but such a player was plenty good.
Miami: Riley and Zo
On Miami, Mourning became the center-piece for Pat Riley’s newest title contender. Of course, Mourning alone wasn’t alone to make the Heat a threat. Riley was also able to pilfer Tim Hardaway and Jamal Mashburn, as well. Mourning continued to play well on Miami. He was never really considered the best center in basketball but he always very close and even earned All-NBA first team honors in 1998-99 (he wasn’t nearly as good as Shaq but the Lakers had an ugly season). Miami then had an impressive four-year run with this group, though they could not get over the top (three straight losses to the Knicks in the playoffs submarined their chances). Here’s a look at the Heat teams with Zo at his prime from 1995-96 through 1999-00:
Year Offensive Eff. Defensive Eff. Pace W-L Playoff Result
1995-96 23rd 6th 19th 42-40 (Lost to Bulls 3-0 in the first round)
1996-97 12th 1st 25th 61-21 (Lost to Bulls 4-1 in Conference Finals)
1997-98 10th 7th 26th 55-27 (Lost to New York 3-2 in first round)
1998-99 9th 8th 29th 33-17 (Lost to New York 3-2 in first round)
1999-00 17th 7th 26th 52-30 (Lost to New York 4-3 in second round)
This is your basic slow-paced, tough defensive team. Whenever they could score at all, the Heat were tough to beat. The run came to an abrupt end in 2000-01 when Mourning suffered focal segmental glomerulosclerosis and missed nearly all the season. He returned for the playoffs (the Heat played remarkably well without him) but the guards were just no match for the athletic Hornets backcourt, losing each game by over 15 points (Baron Davis outscored the Hardaway/Anthony Carter duo 61 to 23 over the course of the three-game sweep).
Mourning was actually able to return full-time in 2001-02, playing 75 games but a notch below what he was before in pretty much every category (15.7 ppg, 8.4 rpg) and lacking his trademark energy on the court. Even worse, the Heat’s core had also decayed to the point where they couldn’t score at all (27th in offensive efficiency) and the team fell to 36-46. Mourning missed all of 2002-03 with the kidney issues and the original Pat Riley Heat were no more.
Mourning in Jersey: The Weird Pit Stop
Despite the fact that it seemed, once again, that his career was over, we would hear from Zo again. After missing 2002-03, somehow, Mourning became a key piece to the Nets. In the summer of 2003, the Nets’ best player, Jason Kidd, was a free agent. Kidd led the Nets to two straight Finals appearances and was the identity of the franchise. The Nets were begging for him to return but he was actually interested in possibly going to San Antonio or Dallas. The Nets were able to coax him back by signing his body Mourning to a four-year $22 million deal that was completely uninsured. It wasn’t clear that Mourning had anything left but this was a concession to Kidd, who really wanted to play with his friend. The deal couldn’t really be panned from a Nets’ perspective as they would’ve paid Kidd an extra $22 million to keep him anyway, even if Mourning, on his own, wasn’t a great investment at the time.
Mourning’s time on the Nets was far from fun. Mourning played 12 games for the Nets in 2003-04, where he played okay but forgot how to rebound and fouled at a very high rate. Mourning also got into a fight with teammate Kenyon Martin, who tactfully made fun of Zo’s kidney problems. Shortly thereafter, Mourning was out for the season when it was found that his blood levels were bad and that he was close to suffering cardiac arrest. So it seemed that Mourning was done (again).
Despite all this, Mourning fought hard and tried to come back in 2004-05. But life that season was very different. Kidd was injured and Martin, a key player, was let go in free agency. Kidd was very angry that Martin was let go and was angling for a trade. Mourning also wanted to go to a contender. The Nets seemed to want Mourning to just go away, as they were not a title team and he wasn’t that good anymore anyway. Despite all this, Mourning came back and played pretty well (10.4 ppg, 7.1 rpg in 25.4 mpg in 18 games). Mourning’s anger eventually led to his boycotting the team until he was traded. The Nets didn’t really care because they weren’t going to pay him if he refused to play. They then took his contract slot and somehow traded it (with a few other trinkets) for Vince Carter. In the end, this worked out quite well for the Nets and Zo.
Mourning refused to report to the mediocre Raptors team. Rather than keep him on the suspended list, Toronto negotiated a buyout, giving Mourning a good amount of the money he was owed. This made little sense but Mourning took the opportunity to take the money and return to Miami, a team that had since returned to title level with Shaq and Dwyane Wade in town.
Return to Miami
Zo’s return to Miami was as Shaq’s back up and he did it quite well. Mourning was kept on a pretty strict minutes limit (20 mpg in 2005-06 and 2006-07) and a he played like a whirling dervish again, blocking shots a the highest per minute rate of his career (he led the NBA in block percentage both years) but also fouling at his highest rate too. Mourning also shot most efficiently in his back up role (though his rebounding also declined). The stat line showed him to be one of the best backups in the league and a key contributor to the Heat’s 2005-06 title. Mourning opted to return after the 2005-06 title but the Heat were no longer a contender. They fell to .500 in 2006-07 and declined greatly in 2007-08. To make matters worse, Mourning blew out his knee early in the season, ostensibly ending his career for real this time.
Is Zo a Hall of Famer?
While it is true that Mourning is not on the level of the greats, I see him pretty clearly as a Hall of Famer. This isn’t a universal sentiment but I think Mourning had the unfortunate timing of entering the league with Shaq. There was a small rivalry between the two players early on in their careers but O’Neal became so good so quickly Mourning just couldn’t keep up that it wasn’t even worth talking about by 1994. Indeed, by Shaq’s second-year he had put numbers that Mourning could never match in his best years. But where does Mourning on our list of centers?
Avoiding the usual controversies about how to rank centers, we can list the modern centers (post-1960s) who are clearly are better than Zo:
Getting those guys out of the way, I think that David Robinson, Patrick Ewing, and Moses Malone also rank above Mourning. Then we get to some of the Hall of Fame centers who are not superstars but very good (Robert Parish, Bob McAdoo, Elvin Hayes, Bob Lanier, Dave Cowens, Wes Unseld, Willis Reed). It’s a bit quick dirty, but here’s a rundown of all these players career stats and their peak PERs. Obviously this isn’t determinative of whose best but it is instructive, so let’s take a look at Zo fits in with his competition by per-36 minute production (active players are in bold):
At the outset, we do recognize that PER does not recognize defensive abilities and playing in a slower pace will depress the stats of Zo somewhat. In that sense, Mourning is one of the better defenders, a fact that this method gives him no credit for. Even with that proviso, the raw stats, however, do indicate that he fits in as a lower tier Hall of Famer. One factor that hurts Zo is the fact that he missed so many games. This obviously couldn’t be helped because of his serious illness but Zo played the second fewest games on the list, only ahead of Cowens, who retired prematurely (surprisingly, Duncan has already played more games than Zo). Even adjusting for his era, Zo is also a weaker rebounder than expected too (but is the best shot blocker on the list). Stats aside, I perceive Zo to be as no worse than eighth on the list behind Shaq, Robinson, Duncan, Kareem, Hakeem, Moses, and Ewing.
The All-Zo Team
Here’s a list of the best seasons that occurred around Zo while he was a starter (pre-2002) together with Zo’s peak year:
-PG: Tim Hardaway, 1996-97: 20.3 ppg, .415 FG%, 8.6 apg, 20.8 PER
-SG: Del Curry, 1993-94: 16.3 ppg, .455 FG%, 2.7 apg, 18.5 PER
-SF: Jamal Mashburn, 1999-00: 17.5 ppg, .445 FG%, 5.0 apg, 3.9 apg, 15.4 PER
-PF: Larry Johnson, 1992-93: 22.1 ppg, .526 FG%, 10.5 rpg, 4.3 apg, 18.9 PER
-C: Alonzo Mourning, 1999-00: 21.7 ppg, .551 FG%, 9.5 rpg, 3.7 bpg, 25.8 PER
In the end….
Yup, Mourning was good and would’ve looked even better without his unfortunate illness. He’s a pretty clear Hall of Famer and is better than most of the retired players who were very good but haven’t quite made it in yet (Gilmore, Bernard King, Adrian Dantley). But in assessing Zo, we return to our gut reactions. When you watched Zo, his play was violent and without much art. Additionally, there are very few signature moments to his career that were totally flattering. We remember generally his fierce defense and shot blocking but think back to specific Zo moments. Here’s what comes to mind:
-Mourning’s series winning shot against the Celtics in the 1992-93 playoffs (good so far)
-Mourning fighting Larry Johnson (with Jeff Van Gundy attached to his leg) after Game 4 of the 1997-98 playoff series with the Knicks and Zo’s subsequent suspension that caused the Heat to lose the series.
-Mourning’s confrontation with Henefeld.
-Mourning’s complaints that the refs were giving Jordan too much deference in the 1994-95 playoffs.
-Zo’s battles with Dennis Rodman in the 1996-97 Eastern Conference Finals where it appeared that Rodman had got in his head.
-Zo’s holdout with the Nets/Raptors.
-The title with the Heat in 2005-06.
It’s unfortunate that some of Mourning’s major moments were not happy but it is somewhat fitting that so many of his moments are associated with the temper that drove him but bit him on occasion. Even after all that, virtually any account of Mourning indicates that he is caring guy who quietly works with charity and is thoughtful but this will always be juxtaposed with his wrecking ball playing style on the court.