From the state that has produced some of the finest big men in the history of basketball, yet another tall talent has emerged as the talk of the college-basketball world. Move over, Moses Malone, Ralph Sampson and J. R. Reid, here comes Alonzo Mourning, a 6-foot-10 senior-to-be who is being described by some prominent college coaches as the best high-school player they've ever seen.
Former Maryland coach Lefty Driesell, who began recruiting Mourning when the player was in ninth grade, said, "The kid would have been first-team all-ACC last year as a junior in high school."
Driesell does get a little excited about young phenoms, and he has always said that Malone (Petersburg High, 1974), who had signed a letter of intent to attend Maryland before deciding to turn professional, was the best he ever saw. Until now.
Last week, Driesell said of Mourning, "He's probably as good a high school player as Moses. . . . Actually, he might even be better than Moses. He shoots outside, he blocks shots, he rebounds, he gets after it, he never loafs.
"Is he as good as Ralph? Oh, heck, he's further along than Ralph was. I'm telling you, he might be better than Moses!"
Driesell is by no means out on a limb on this one. Tom Young, head coach at Old Dominion (in nearby Norfolk), said, "Mourning is the best I've seen; you can go all the way back to (Lew) Alcindor. I have absolutely no reservations at all in saying he's the best I've ever seen."
Last season, Mourning averaged 21.8 points, 11 rebounds and 9.6 blocked shots a game for Indian River High School. Those who have seen him play say his defensive game is similar to that of one of his idols, Patrick Ewing; that he is a consummate shot blocker, a relentless presence underneath and one who runs the court full speed from opening tip to final buzzer.
Offensively, it is said he has a nice shooting touch from the 12-foot range and that he is more polished than Sampson and Malone at a similar stage in their careers.
Driesell says that, ultimately, Mourning's natural position may be forward, not center.
Bob Chuey, coach of the Hayfield High team that lost to Indian River in the state championship semifinal round, was a college assistant coach at Texas Christian University during the Sampson-Ewing years.
"I think he'll surpass all of the people from the previous generation," Chuey said. "He's going to be an (Abdul-Jabbar). He'll fulfill every bit of his potential."
Indian River boys basketball coach Bill Lassiter started a conversation one afternoon by saying, "I am not a basketball expert."
He spends very little time projecting how good a basketball player Mourning may become, and he may also be just what Mourning, the product of a foster home, needs. Mourning does not like to talk about his personal life.
Fortunately for Mourning and his family, Lassiter is there to relieve many of the expected basketball pressures. The coach is an especially insightful man who injured a knee early in his career as a point guard at Kentucky State, then learned the game by following around his college coaches.
Back when Mourning was a 6-foot-4 seventh-grader, Lassiter started preparing himself for handling the recruiting onslaught. Recruiters are already comparing the way Lassiter handled Mourning with Mike Jarvis' managing of Patrick Ewing when Ewing was a senior.
Lassiter says he is intent on consulting with Mourning on every request. He also is trying to find a balance between Mourning's need to make an independent decision with his getting enough information to make a well-informed choice of college.
Old Dominion's Young is one of several coaches who said Lassiter, although protective, has been fair in his dealings with everyone.
Said Young, "I think anybody who goes around the rules and tries to go back-door will be making a major mistake. The young man needs protection from what could get to be a chaotic situation."
Lassiter said, "I hope that if I make a mistake, it won't be so detrimental that we can't rebound from it. I don't want this recruiting thing becoming just a parade that leads to a circus. I'm from the country--Gates County, North Carolina--and I guess I'm old fashioned, but I don't believe you reap a bountiful harvest by rushing things."
So, Lassiter established his guidelines. College coaches can call Mourning on Monday and Wednesday, noon to 1 p.m. Coaches can call or visit Lassiter at home from 8 to 10 any night of the week but cannot call Mourning at home.
Mourning, who has been playing organized or playground ball most of his life, said he is still considering 14 schools: Old Dominion, Norfolk State, Virginia, Virginia Tech, Duke, Maryland, Georgetown, Syracuse, Georgia Tech, Kansas, UCLA, Notre Dame, North Carolina and Louisville.
Though he has another year of high school, Mourning has become quite a celebrity in his hometown. Herb Phillips, the principal of Indian River, said Mourning receives more letters per day--"seven or eight, minimum" than he does, and joked, "You tell Alonzo the principal is jealous of that fact. . . . It's mind-boggling. Just the other day I wondered if, when I was 17 years old, I could have handled all that's coming his way?"
Phillips didn't answer his question, but he left the impression his response would have been "absolutely not."
Alonzo Mourning says he doesn't want to be a star. Not yet, anyway. He is a polite teen-ager who likes being liked. But to assure that, he has had to make adjustments.
"It's getting a little hard to walk down the hall and not say hello to every single person," he said, sitting in a room adjacent to the school library. "If I don't speak to every single person, they'll say, 'Oh, he's a star now, he's got his nose in the air and he can't say hello to somebody like me anymore.' So, I better say hello to everyone. I don't think people want to deal with somebody with a big head.
"I try to blend in with the crowd, which is kinda hard. Yeah, it feels good to know famous coaches are coming to school to talk about you. My classmates are fascinated by it, but I'm getting used to it. Everybody says it will be a lot of pressure, but it's not bugging me to the extent that my grades are falling off or anything."
By all accounts, Mourning is an average student in a school of 1,200 that is about half black, half white. He says he hasn't settled on a college major and isn't sure what he is looking for in a school, but added, "I do know I don't want to mess up in school, because it would be embarrassing to have it in the newspapers that you're in academic trouble."
He already has an interesting observation about recruiters. "All of 'em say pretty much the same thing. They talk to you about their schools and they say things, whatever will enhance their schools."
To some degree, Mourning seems like the typical 17-year-old, though he looks a little older. And scouts say he has the body of a college junior. But Mourning has already begun to feel the pressure of expectations, and is up front about it.
"The pressure, people saying, 'They've got to win because they've got Alonzo Mourning,' " he said. "The night before we went to Richmond (for the state tournament) I didn't sleep well. I kept thinking, 'If we lose, what will the newspapers say? It's good to be compared to somebody who's made it and is a good pro. But I'm not Ralph or Moses. . . . I like Patrick Ewing. I love his style of play. He didn't worry about points, he liked crashing the boards and playing defense.
"I like watching him. But still, I'm just me. Maybe some day. . . . "
It wasn't too long ago--seventh grade, Mourning thinks--that he had grown to 6-4, and it didn't feel too good to be so tall.
"I was teased and everybody picked on me," he said. "I was awkward and I couldn't play. I didn't know how to use any skills. But people kept saying, 'Hey, this guy is 6-4 and he's in junior-high school. He oughta get on a court.' I messed up everything. Guys pushed me around in pickup ball a lot."
In real time, that was five years ago, but in basketball time, it was another life. The thing that impresses coaches almost to the point of fright is that Mourning now is so dominant and plays in such a mature manner for someone 17.
"I was amazed at the distance Alonzo can come from to block a shot," Hayfield's Chuey said. "He controls the blocks, taps them to himself and starts a fast break. I know that, in our game, the kids would think, 'He's so far away. I've got this one.' But you wouldn't get this one. And we don't have slow kids."
Stu Vetter, the Flint Hill coach whose team was the only one to beat Indian River (29-1) this season, said Flint Hill had success because it had three big men to send in against Mourning.
"That's something he most likely hadn't seen before," Vetter said. "But he was still effective. The thing that impressed me was that he was such a knowledgeable player.
"Big men usually have something lacking. Either they can't run the court, or they can't shoot, or they don't have the hands. He has the whole package. Sure, he's so aggressive at times that he tries to block everything within 25 feet of the basket and gets faked off his feet, but he's a junior in high school."
Young, when asked to compare Mourning with Sampson and Malone, said, "Those other guys were more accomplished offensively at the same stage, I think. But from a coach's standpoint, to have a shot blocker like him, a rebounder like him. . . . And the thing is, his offense is catching up with everything else."
Meanwhile, there is another recruiting battle going on over Mourning. All the best summer basketball camps want him. He wanted to go to all of them, said Lassiter, who convinced him to attend just a few camps (perhaps only Five-Star and Princeton, N.J.) this summer.
"To me," Lassiter said, "basketball is learned in the pickup games on the playground. He's not a novice anymore."
Lassiter recalled when Mourning first came to high school.
"He was just thrust onto the scene," the coach said. "Ninth grade was a rough time for him; he fumbled his way through. That brought him quickly back to earth.
"I told him, 'To be outstanding, you'll have to possess the skills of a 6-foot guard, even in your 6-7 body.' He was very humble and listened very respectfully.