Is any story in the NBA more remarkable than that of Alonzo Mourning? Not so long ago, it appeared that the dominating center’s career was at an end, tragically cut short by kidney disease. Yet here he is on the court again, playing a key role in Miami’s playoff push. He no longer logs big minutes, and he’s no longer the focus of his team’s game plan and opposing defenses’ attention, but Zo has thrived in his new role, taking the heat off Miami’s starters and giving the team a highly effective weapon off the bench. There was widespread skepticism when the Heat signed the veteran center after he had been waived by Toronto without ever putting on a Raptors uniform, but Mourning has proved all the doubters wrong.
But wait – doen’t this sound like one of those 70s and 80s remakes? Haven’t we heard this plot line before?
Flashback to 1974, when the Portland Trail Blazers chose a promising center out of UCLA with the top pick of the draft: Bill Walton. Walton had already gained national attention in college, both through his inspired play which led the Bruins to two national championships and because of his flannel shirts and outspoken political views. In the NBA, Walton suffered through a host of injuries, but when he did make it onto the hardwood, he established himself as one of the top big men in the league, giving opponents fits on both ends of the court. In his prime, Walton could do it all: pass the ball, crash the boards, block shots and, of course, take it to the hoop with authority.
Walton reached the very pinnacle of NBA success in his third and fourth seasons in the league. In 1977, he carried the Blazers on a magical ride to the NBA title, beating both Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s Lakers and Julius Erving’s 76ers on the way. The following year, Walton was named the league’s most valuable player. Unfortunately, he also broke his ankle that season, and some felt he would never be able to fully recover.
Walton fought back, however, and moved on to join the Clippers, with whom he spent four years. Yet another ankle injury kept him out of all but 14 games during the 1979-80 campaign, and this time, Walton was told he’d never play again. Again the former MVP battled back, and increased his games played in each of the three following seasons: 33 in 1982-83, 55 in 1983-84, and 67 in 1984-85. The next year, he was acquired by Boston.
The Celtics already had a star-studded roster, with a lineup featuring Larry Bird, Robert Parish, Kevin McHale, Dennis Johnson and Danny Ainge. Walton found himself playing the role of sixth man. And he thrived.
Although he only averaged 7.6 points and 19.3 minutes per game during the regular season, and only 18.2 minutes per playoff contest, many observers feel that without Walton, the Celtics would have fallen short in their quest for an unprecedented sixteenth title, just as they did the year before when the Lakers took home the crown. Instead, the team finished with 67 wins, the most in the franchise’s storied history. The veteran’s presence sent a jolt through the team, and his infectious enthusiasm and leadership were as important as the breathers he provided Parish and McHale. Walton was rewarded not only with his second championship, but with the Sixth Man Award, as well as a place in Celtics lore.
Clearly, any comparisons between Mourning’s kidney condition and Walton’s injuries would be off base and inappropriate. But the determination and courage with which these athletes fought to return to the game is shared by both, as is their conversion from superstar and focal point to off-the-bench contributor. Even their career field goal percentages – 52.3% for Mourning, 52.1% for Walton – are remarkably similar. Can Mourning again follow in Walton’s footsteps and help bring his team a title?
The Heat certainly have their work cut out for them, with a tough series against Detroit standing between them and a trip to the finals. But if they do succeed in their quest to bring a title to Miami, there’s little doubt that Alonzo Mourning will be an important factor before all is said and done.
Arlo Vander once pulled a Mourning autograph from a 50-cent pack of cards.
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