When a devastating earthquake struck Haiti in January 2010, Alonzo Mourning enlisted several NBA players to help raise funds and send essential supplies to the stricken country where more than 200,000 people died, more than a million were left homeless and a nation was left in ruins.
“I reached out to several colleagues so we could provide help immediately to people who are suffering in Haiti,” he said, “people who are a lot less fortunate than we are.”
It was vintage Mourning, a retired basketball superstar who overcame childhood trauma, a brush with a major drug dealer and a life-threatening kidney disease and knows the benefits that come from helping others.
“In every adversity,” Mourning said in a recent interview, “there is a seed of equivalent benefit.”
The future NBA star had to face family problems as a child when his parents, Alonzo Sr. and Julia Mourning, separated, leaving him feeling isolated, confused and frustrated.
The family sought counseling but his parents ended up divorcing. Instead of choosing sides, he opted to go into foster care.
“It was a situation where I was extremely close with my parents and they were dealing with some issues that affected me emotionally,” he said. “I didn’t understand why things couldn’t go the way I wanted them to go. I wanted to live with them both. I eventually elected not to live with either one of them,” he said.
He spent several months in a group home and then, at age 11, he moved into the home of Fannie Threet, who became his foster mom.
“Mrs. Threet, a retired schoolteacher, taught me the importance of responsibility and helped me understand the significance of a good education,” he said.
As the young Mourning pursued that good education, he also started to excel on the basketball court, and after high school he headed off to Georgetown University, impressed by Hall of Fame coach John Thompson.
“Big John was a father-figure,” Mourning said. “He taught me more about life than he did about basketball.” But he flourished as a college basketball player, driving himself to the point where, he recalled, Thompson would have to kick him out of the weight room to get some rest.
It was in Washington, D.C., where Mourning faced his next big challenge. He became linked to drug lord Rayful Edmond III and a federal drug sting.
“By being the number-one player in the nation at that particular time, many people were attracted to me,” Mourning said. “Coming from the country — Chesapeake, Virginia — to Washington, D.C., it was like culture shock. The attention was great.”
It was Edmond who wanted to hang out with him, said Mourning, who had never been around anything illegal or felt he was in harm’s way. He found out later that his new-found friend was being accused of being the largest drug dealer on the East Coast.
“He wasn’t flamboyant. I didn’t see any drugs or guns. At times I saw some money, but nothing to alarm me,” he recalled.
Thompson insisted Mourning end his relationship with Edmond after being caught in DEA surveillance photos with him. Mourning was not accused of anything illegal. He was subpoenaed to testify as a character witness for Edmond, who was sentenced to life in prison
“Since that situation,” Mourning said, “I’ve kept my guard up. People looked at me as standoffish. I’ve always been that way since then but I’m a people person. I’ve always been a people person, even though it might not seem like it.”
Mourning went on to a stellar 16-season career in the NBA, helping the Miami Heat win their first national championship. His playing days were cut short when he was diagnosed with a rare condition known as focal segmental glomenrulosclerosis or FSGS. The disease affects the ability of the kidneys to filter urine and required a kidney transplant.
The eventual donor was a cousin, Jason Cooper, whom he had not seen in a long time.
Mourning was playing for the New York Nets when Cooper visited his grandmother, who was battling lung cancer.
“I had just announced I needed to retire from basketball and get a transplant. Jason was in the hospital room in Virginia with my dad. The announcement rolled across the television screen. Jason told my dad, ‘Tell Alonzo if he needs me, give me a call,’” Mourning recalled.
Several family members were tested as possible donors, but Cooper was chosen as the best match.
“This is a man I hadn’t seen in over 20 years. Jason was the perfect size, the perfect health. He was the perfect match,” he said. “I don’t think that was a coincidence. All of that was orchestrated by God.”
Mourning had the kidney transplant in 2003, with minimal complications, though he had his doubts as to whether he would survive.
His strength, he says, comes from God, his wife Tracy and their children Trey, Myka Sydney and Alijah.
“My wife, Tracy, is the backbone of the family. I knew with her strength I’d be able to overcome some of the doubts I had,” he recalled.
Mourning’s name has also become synonymous locally with charitable work. Alonzo Mourning Charities, a not-for-profit public fundraising foundation, was established in 1997 to serve South Florida residents. The organization has reportedly raised more than $7 million for programs that assist children and their families.
Mourning has told his story in his memoir, Resilience: Faith, Focus, Triumph, with Dan Wetzel. Though he is no longer blocking and dunking, he is not done with basketball.
He works in the Heat’s front office and gets some of the credit for bringing highly sought-after free agents Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh to Miami. He fully expects to see the Heat go to the playoffs this season and bring another NBA championship to South Florida.