Before Dwyane Wade became the unofficial mayor of South Beach, the face of the Miami Heat franchise was Alonzo Mourning.
You can’t write the history of the Heat without mentioning the man who embodied everything team president Pat Riley preaches.
“When you talk about Alonzo … what it comes down to is he’s the absolute, ultimate warrior,” Riley said about the 6-10 center who was recently inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Mass. He joined Mitch Richmond, Bob Leonard, Nat Clifton, Sarunas Marciulionis, Guy Rodgers, Nolan Richardson, Gary Williams and former NBA commissioner David Stern in the class of 2014.
“Nobody I’ve been around has more blood and sweat equity in this game than this man, Alonzo,” Riley said. “He gave everything he had to the game, but, as a competitor, never gave an inch.”
Riley and Mourning are connected at the hip. They are similar in a lot of ways. They’re both very driven, almost maniacal to a point, and will stretch themselves to the absolutely limit to achieve their goal.
When Riley left New York for Miami in 1995, he needed an anchor. Riley brought Mourning with him to Miami and inked him to a $100 million contract. Riley built his squad around his then 25-year-old big man armed with WWE-like biceps and a tenacious approach only a drill sergeant could love.
Zo was coming off three very productive years with the Charlotte Hornets, but he had to share the spotlight with Larry Johnson. In Miami, Zo was the undisputed superstar in a city starving for a winner. Behind Mourning’s effort and energy, the Heat became one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference. Miami reached the conference finals in 1997, losing to Michael Jordan’s Bulls, but never went beyond that. Most of Zo’s playoff runs ended in misery, mostly at the hands of the New York Knicks.
Mourning’s first stint with the Heat abruptly ended in 2000 when he was diagnosed with a rare kidney disease. He returned to action in 2003-04 season with the New Jersey Nets but he was never the same player.
After briefly contemplating retirement, the NBA’s two-time defensive player of the year returned to the Heat in 2005 to join forces with Wade and his old nemesis Shaquille O’Neal. Mourning accepted a reduced role because he knew Wade and Shaq can get him that elusive championship ring.
His time finally came in the following season when the Heat defeated the Dallas Mavericks in six games. In the deciding Game 6, Mourning managed to reach back into his depleted tank and found the old Zo. He had six blocks in the game and had one monster dunk that fired up the troops.
Mourning was a self-made player. He often went up against bigger centers in the league, but no one could outworked him. His legacy was more about effort and energy, and statistics were always secondary to winning.
If you asked Riley if he could carve out the perfect Miami Heat player, he would look like Alonzo Mourning.