Alonzo Mourning: The Edge of Sports Interview

Dave ZirinGuest ColumnistJanuary 26, 2009

Retired NBA All Star Alonzo Mourning was renowned for the ferocious glare he wore on the court. He is one of the few players—Kevin Garnett is another—who has been chided for perhaps being too intense. But Mourning's intensity wasn't an affectation for game-time purposes.

It's allowed him to navigate a life that's been filled with personal and medical hardships. It compelled him to make the Dean's List at Georgetown. It's forced him to engage with the world like few other athletes, running a youth center in his adopted home of Miami and working on the Obama campaign.  

I spoke with Mourning about politics, health and his book, 'Resilience: Faith, Focus, and Triumph.'

DZ: Could just tell us where you were on election night and what your reaction was when you heard that Obama won.

AM: Well, I was sitting in my little TV area in my house, and my children were asleep, and my wife, she was sleeping with my daughter.  It was an emotional moment for me, man, because just watching Barack and our future First Family come on stage, I just thought about all my family that are not here today to witness this.

And I thought about all the individuals that lost their lives to make this possible.  It's a blessing.  We've come so far.  So any people made tremendous amounts of sacrifices.  And it was just an emotional moment.  I'm just happy to have been a part of the whole campaign process.

DZ: You were part of that process. Why?

AM: I was because our world right now is in turmoil, and it starts with our leadership.  You got over 1.2 million Americans this year who've lost jobs; thousands and thousands of people who've lost their homes, education is in total disarray, as well as our health care system.  

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So, I knew there needed to be some type of change for the better.  And if you close your eyes and listen to Barack Obama speak, you can just feel the sincerity in his voice, and you knew that he was going to make the right decisions; every decision humanly possible to make and create a better life for everybody, and try to change the current atmosphere that we're living in.

So, I felt confident. I felt confident about supporting his policies and his efforts. And my wife and I are huge advocates of what he does and I'm fortunate and blessed and honored to have been a part of the whole process.  

DZ: I want to jump right into the book here. Why did you choose to call the book Resilience: Faith, Focus, and Triumph?

AM: Well, resilience is a very powerful word, and I think we all have that in us, that resilience, that ability to comeback, to overcome.  

And I wrote the book to utilize my life experiences in hopes that individuals would be able to use my story to help them overcome different adversities, obstacles, and challenges that they may face in life.  

Because regardless of how bad you got it or how good you got it, you're going to continue to face different challenges in life.  

Pat Riley once told me that 'adversity introduces a man to himself'.  We're going to all go through different adversity, but I think we all find strength in each other.  We all find strength, words of inspiration; we find it in one another, you know?

 And I felt like with all the individuals who planted seeds in my life that enabled me to be the person that I am today, whether it be family members, coaches.

[Former Georgetown Coach] John Thompson played a very intricate role in my development as a person as well as a player so we all have those individuals, and I feel like that my story, using those experiences to share with other individuals is going to help other individuals overcome some of the challenges that they may face, and encourage them to never give up.  

I mean, that's the key: just never giving up. Tough times don't last, but tough people do.  And I've been through some tough times, and I know a lot of people can recall tough times, and maybe are going through some tough times right now, but they don't last.

It's your approach, the positive approach, mental approach to it that will help you overcome, and not feeling sorry for yourself.  

DZ: Now that's one of the things in reading the book is that throughout your life, starting at a young age, you're faced with a series of very difficult choices.. And just to give people a taste of the book, you were 10 years old when you petitioned to get yourself into foster care.  

How were you even able to make that decision at that time?

AM: Well, I wasn't happy. When a child's not happy, a child makes decisions that sometimes they go off of feeling and intuition, you know?  I wasn't happy at that particular time. My mother and father were going through some pretty tough times, and emotionally, I was affected by it.

I went through counseling. And I was rebelling as a child. I was the only child at that particular time. The situation just wasn't pleasant at all. So, in the counseling system that we were going to, they had a group home connected to the place, and they asked my mom and dad, 'Look, now, let us keep him for a couple of days'.

And I went through some sessions there to help me deal with my problems there I was dealing with at home.  They asked me did I want to go back home.  And I told them, 'No, I don't want to go back home'.

And when my mother and father came to get me after a couple of days, I said, 'Hey, you know what?  I'm fine here.  I don't want to go back.'  So, to make a long story short, when my mother and father separated, got a divorce, I had to decide in the courtroom, who I wanted to live with.  

Now, I love my mother and father dearly, and I still keep in contact with them to this day. I told the judge, 'It's difficult for me to choose because I love them both.  I can't choose so I'd rather stay where I am.'  So, it was very difficult for me, and I took a leap of faith at that particular time.  

Fortunately enough with the foster care system, I fell into the hands, social services, they find families for these children in group homes, and I fell into the hands of Fannie Threet. This is a woman who fostered 49 kids in her lifetime.  

She's an amazing woman. She planted a lot of amazing seeds in my life helping me understand the importance of walking by faith and not by sight, and she's a retired school teacher so, helping me understand the importance of getting my education, and just how to be a productive citizen, and how to be a man.  

She played a great role in my life, and I'm happy to have spent six years in her household.

At that particular time, there were three other kids in the household as well, plus two of her biological kids who were much older and they went on through the military and all that, but looking back on my life, I know it was very disheartening and very disappointing to my biological parents that I made that decision and I've had countless conversations about it with them to this day, but we're very close and I love them.

One of the things that my father has said in my book Resilience is that 'the Threet family did more for him than we could have done for him at that particular time.'  That was pretty powerful.

They are all very, very close. So, looking back on my life, I wouldn't change one bit of it.  I think in every lesson there's a blessing, and there's so many blessings from all the lessons I've had to go through in life.

DZ: Another difficult choice: you could've gone to the pros out of high school.  You could've left after your freshman year.  Not only do you stay at Georgetown for four years, you make the Dean's list That is not a decision that 99 percent of 6'10" basketball prodigies would make. Why make that decision?

AM: Well, first of all, back then, it wasn't the in thing to leave high school and go straight to the pros, and at that particular time when all the college coaches were visiting my home, I narrowed my list down to five schools. It was Georgetown, Maryland, Georgia Tech, Virginia, and Syracuse.

All the coaches, [Jim] Boeheim, Terry Holland, Bob Wade, Bobby Cremins, and "Big John" [Thompson] came to my home.  And they sat in front of my high school coach and Miss Threet.  

And one of things that stood out from all the coaches [is that] all of them promised me all these material things, promised me all this stardom and things of that nature, but Big John said, 'Look, Miss Threet, he's going to have to work for everything he's going to get, but I will tell you this: he's going to get his education and if he doesn't go to class, he won't be at my school'.

So, that was it. That put him above everybody else because, I mean, obviously that was an important part of my development for Miss Threet  and for my high school coach Bill Lassiter.  

So, again, I had angels in my life.  I had individuals in my life to help me make the right decisions because it wasn't about them accepting handouts.  It was about them making the right decisions for me.  

So, when I got to school at Georgetown, it was a country kid [from] Chesapeake, Virginia coming to Washington, DC, I was overwhelmed, I mean, the No. 1 player in the country at that particular time, everything was coming at me and I was being praised, almost making the Olympic team.  

To this day, George Raveling who was a assistant coach of the Olympic team, who was a coach at Iowa and USC, he told Big John, 'You know that boy should've made the Olympic team.'  I keep telling Big John, but Big John knew that it was important for me to start school on time because I would've missed orientation and what have you.

So, at that particular time when I started school, Big John told me, 'Son, you're not putting forth the effort in the classroom that I see in you.'  He said, 'I see more in you than what you're putting out'.  

And I said, 'What do you mean? 'm passing.  I'm doing enough to stay on the team.'  He said, 'No.  No, you can do a whole lot better than what you're doing.'  

He said, 'If you had the cure for cancer, you wouldn't even know it because you're not putting forth the effort It's not even about basketball, and its not about you playing, doing enough to stay, being able to play basketball and staying on the team.'

 He said, 'It's about the same effort you're putting forth on the court, it's about you putting forth that effort in the classroom.'  

So, he made a valid point, and I thought about it.  And the next semester, I made the Dean's List.  I wasn't consistent with it, but it let me know what I was capable of doing, you know?  

So, that was one of the things that Big John had always stressed, and always placed about everything, basketball, everything.  His practices [were] his classroom, and not only did he teach us about basketball, he taught us about life.  

And I'm so happy. Even though we didn't win a National Championship or what have you, it was some of the best four years of my life, and I wouldn't trade them in for anything.  

That's why I tell anybody who has the opportunity to go to an institute of higher learning, take advantage of it because it is a tremendous developmental opportunity for you that will set a beautiful foundation for the rest of your life.

DZ: You're the only athlete I've heard in a post-game press conference quote Frederick Douglass which is a product of education of course.

AM: Oh yeah. Most definitely. Well, I do a lot of reading and that's why one of my biggest initiatives here in South Florida is trying to tackle this vicious cycle of illiteracy.  And you think about it and you have close to 50 percent of the kids here in Miami-Dade [county] who won't graduate from high school.

That's a disgusting statistic considering how rich in resources we are, and it lets you know where we place our priorities. I feel like in America, we don't have a kid problem.  You think about all these issues that these kids are dealing with, we have an adult problem.

We have adults that do not place the priority on our kids to get a valuable education. We got babies raising babies, and its important for us as responsible adults to go out and do what we can to make sure that our kids are steered in the right direction.

And you start with literacy. That's the only way we're going to be able to survive in this particular environment that we're living in right now, in this world we're living in right now.  

We're living in a country that we're ranked 19th in the world in graduations, but we're ranked 1st in incarcerations. That's a terrible statistic.  I realize the value of education, and I just hope that just through the conversation I'm having with you that I'm able to connect with enough people that we can continue to stimulate the goodness that we need for our children and helping them understand the education as a whole.

DZ: We haven't really talked about basketball. Moving forward from here: You obviously have a serious mind on changing the world. What's the next 10 years for Alonzo Mourning?

AM: Well, you know what? I want to continue my philanthropic initiatives. At the same time, I still have a desire to be connected with the game of basketball in some type of capacity, whether it be in broadcasting or somewhere in the front office. I feel like, well, I know that I'll always be connected to the Heat family, and the Heat organization.  

I have a very good rapport and great relationship with Mickey Arison, the owner of the Miami Heat, and his family. But overall, you mentioned the fact that we didn't mention basketball at all during the whole conversation and just to bring you to light exactly my understanding my purpose here.

When I was diagnosed in 2001 with this kidney disease, and being able to overcome that, have a kidney transplant in 2003, a kidney being donated by my second cousin, Jason Cooper, God humbled me at that particular time because I was so consumed with the sport of basketball.

When I was diagnosed after being at such a high in life where I had just come off an Olympic gold medal in Sydney, Australia, just come off witnessing the birth of my child, just come off an NBA season with Defensive Player of the Year, All-Star honors, and runner-up MVP in the league and to get ready for the next year through a preseason physical I find out that I had a rare kidney disorder, it totally deflated me.

And I realized that It wasn't about, 'Why me?  Why me?  Why has this happened to me?' It was,  ' OK, Lord.  Evidently, you don't want me to play basketball now.  What do you want me to do now?'  

And He gave me the direction and helped me understand my true purpose in life.  And I feel like just through the process of the last eight years from 2000 to 2008, I feel like I've touched more lives off the court than I have on.  And I've done that through creating my foundation to help people who can't afford medications, and to be an advocate and a voice for organ donations, also helping to raise millions of dollars for kidney research.  

So, you have 20 million Americans who are battling kidney disease, and another 20 million who are at risk. Forty-four percent of the 20 million are minorities. Also, you have a little over 80,000 who are waiting on transplant lists. So, this is a serious issue for our country, around the world.

So, by me going through what I've been able to go through and to be sitting here talking to you today, still being able to get back on the court and win a World Championship, I feel like I've touched more lives and I've stimulated some positive energy towards people understanding the importance of being an organ donor, and at the same time raising funds for that.  

So, that's my true purpose here, and that's why we haven't even talked about basketball, brother. Because my purpose here is to continue to help others. So, I think that when you ask me for the next 10 years, what you think is in store for me, that's it's to continue to touch more people's lives.


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