The New Jersey Nets' Alonzo Mourning ended his third comeback try Monday, retiring at the age of 33 after tests revealed he needs a kidney transplant.
"We're going to miss him dearly," Coach Byron Scott said after the team's practice in East Rutherford, N.J. "He played every game like it was his last. I'll miss his heart, his courage, his enthusiasm and his intensity. I'll just miss him as a person.
"I had a lot of respect for 'Zo before I met him. I have much more respect for him now in the two months I had him here than I probably ever will for any individual."
Undersized for an NBA center at 6 feet 9, Mourning has a bodybuilder's physique, bulking himself up to 260 pounds. The ferocious Mourning may have had problem kidneys, but he will be remembered for his heart.
He was a seven-time All-Star and two-time league defensive player of the year. Even after sub-par performances in recent seasons, when he was slowed by medication, he had career averages of 20.7 points and 9.8 rebounds. His average of 2.98 blocked shots a game was second among active players only to New York's Dikembe Mutombo.
Acquired in Pat Riley's first blockbuster deal after he took over the Heat, Mourning led a franchise that had been over .500 only once in its first seven seasons to a 61-21 record and the Eastern Conference finals in 1997.
With the Chicago Bulls' dynasty in place, the Heat got no further than that, but posted first-place finishes in the Atlantic Division the next three seasons.
However, before the 2000-01 season, Mourning was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, which commonly causes chronic kidney failure within a decade.
Former San Antonio Spur player Sean Elliott underwent a kidney transplant because of the same ailment in 1999. He returned briefly in 2001, then retired.
Mourning returned to play the final 13 games of the 2000-2001 season and 75 in the next one before tests again showed deteriorating kidney function. He sat out all of last season, which turned out to be Riley's last as coach.
As a free agent last summer, Mourning was courted by several teams, including the Dallas Mavericks. At the last moment, Jason Kidd talked him into signing a four-year, $22-million deal with the Nets, seemingly providing a major upgrade for the two-time defending East champions.
It soon became clear that Mourning was a shadow of what he'd been. Although he remained a conditioning zealot, he was slow and without stamina. He wound up backing up young Jason Collins, averaging 18 minutes and 8.0 points. In his last five games, Mourning had six rebounds
If his kidney function was again deteriorating, as tests would show, it seemed to surprise him as much as anyone.
Last week, Mourning suggested he was impatient at not playing more. Then he got into a loud argument with his young teammate Kenyon Martin, which began when he told Martin and Richard Jefferson to knock off the joking at practice. It concluded with Martin questioning Mourning's contribution, yelling, "My kidney! My kidney!"
Monday, Martin called Mourning's departure "a terrible loss," adding, "We pray for him to stay strong. He came out and worked hard every day. He took no days off."
Mourning did not attend Monday's practice and was not available for comment. He played what turned out to be his final game Saturday, scoring 15 points in 16 minutes in a loss to the Toronto Raptors.
Afterward, sounding like the old competitor, Mourning noted, "I didn't come back just to play well and to travel and to be in the NBA. I came back to win, and we're not doing that. My play isn't good enough right now for us to win."
A day later, he found out why.
"It is no longer medically safe for him to play basketball," said Dr. Gerald Appel of Columbia University in New York, who had been monitoring Mourning. "Although he still feels well, the chemical imbalances in his blood make it dangerous for him to play."
The Nets said Mourning needs a transplant "in the near future" and a nationwide search is underway for a prospective donor.
"I'm disappointed," Kidd said. "He's disappointed. We all wanted it to work out on the court. In the short time he was here, I think he showed a lot of the younger guys what their job description entailed, and that's coming to work every day. That's the way he approached it, knowing that each practice or each game could be his last.
"Life is more important than the game of basketball. We want him to enjoy his family and friends rather than kill himself on the basketball court....
"He was down when I spoke to him. He was soft-spoken in the sense that he felt he was maybe letting me down, because he came here to try and win a championship and he came here because of me. I told him that the game of basketball is just a game. Don't be upset because you feel you let me down. I want to be able to still call my friend and ask him for his opinion on what the team needs to do, or maybe come by and give us a lift.
"This should help us appreciate the game, because it was taken from him, not on his terms."
As driven off the floor as on, Mourning won the league's Walter Kennedy Award for citizenship, holding an annual summer charity game in Miami known as "Zo's Summer Groove," and, after contracting his illness, becoming a spokesman for the national Kidney Foundation.
(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)
2000: Diagnosed with kidney disease during training camp in October. Sat out all but the last 13 games of regular season. Played in playoffs.
* 2002-03: Sat out the season because of the recurrence of his kidney ailment.
* 2003-04: Signed as a free agent with the New Jersey Nets. Played in 12 games before another kidney ailment setback forced him to sideline.
Second pick of the 1992 draft by Charlotte behind Shaquille O'Neal. ... Career averages of 20.0 points and 9.9 rebounds (complete statistics, D9). ... Seven-time NBA All-Star. ... NBA defensive player of the year for 1999 and 2000 seasons.
Mourning's Career Statistics
Alonzo Mourning's career statistics (*Missed first 69 games because of kidney ailment; **Missed season because of kidney ailment):
*--* Season, Team G FG FT Reb Ast Pts 1992-93, Charlotte 78 511 781 10.3 1.0 21.0 1993-94, Charlotte 60 505 762 10.2 1.4 21.5 1994-95, Charlotte 77 519 761 9.9 1.4 21.3 1995-96, Miami 70 523 685 10.4 2.3 23.2 1996-97, Miami 66 534 642 9.9 1.6 19.8 1997-98, Miami 58 551 665 9.6 0.9 19.2 1998-99, Miami 46 511 652 11.0 1.6 20.1 1999-00, Miami 79 551 711 9.5 1.6 21.7 2000-01, Miami *13 518 564 7.8 0.9 13.6 2001-02, Miami 75 516 657 8.4 1.2 15.7 2002-03, Miami Did not play** 2003-04, New Jersey 12 465 882 2.3 0.7 8.0 Totals 634 524 706 9.7 1.4 20.0 PLAYOFFS Season, Team G FG FT Reb Ast Pts 1992-93, Charlotte 9 480 774 9.9 1.4 23.8 1994-95, Charlotte 4 421 837 13.3 2.8 22.0 1995-96, Miami 3 486 714 6.0 1.3 18.0 1996-97, Miami 17 491 555 10.2 1.1 17.8 1997-98, Miami 4 518 655 8.5 1.3 19.3 1998-99, Miami 5 521 653 8.2 0.8 21.6 1999-00, Miami 10 484 667 10.0 1.4 21.6 2000-01, Miami 3 480 579 5.3 1.0 11.7 Totals 55 486 664 9.5 1.3 19.9