alonzo-mourning_web.jpgMIAMI — If any professional athlete has personified the adage, “to whom much is given, much is required,” it is Alonzo Mourning. The former Miami Heat center’s name is not only synonymous with athletic prowess; it is also often attached to the words “service,” “charity” and “philanthropist.”

Mourning was the keynote speaker at the National Organization of Black County Officials’ 25th annual Future Leaders Luncheon, its first time in Miami. The audience of mostly high school students held onto Mourning’s every inspiring word April 30 at the luxurious Mayfair Hotel in Coconut Grove.

“Fifty short years ago, we weren’t allowed in a hotel like this,” Mourning informed the audience.

The office for the Alonzo Mourning Charities is located across the street from the hotel, headquarters for much of Mourning’s philanthropic efforts. Following the luncheon, Mourning ducked into the office for a meeting with his development director, possibly planning for his 13th annual Zo’s Summer Groove. The multi-day, celebrity-laden fundraiser that includes a concert and basketball game has raised more than $6 million for a variety of programs that assist children and families since its inception in 1997.

At the NOBCO conference, Mourning dispensed advice to the youth that was also apropos for the adults in the room, imploring the students to make giving a significant part of their lives.

“Give your time, give love, give a smile, a hug, a compliment. That goes a long way,” Mourning said.

The content of Mourning’s message was nothing new. The inspiring words were probably heard by the youth in other settings with other speakers; however, this was “Zo,” and his delivery of the inspiring words was laced with a level of sincerity and passion that made the words feel personal, his entreaties to reach for the sky actually doable.

Joe Leonard is the Obama administration’s assistant secretary for civil rights for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and also a NOBCO conference speaker. Seated adjacent to Mourning, Leonard was so taken by the basketball legend’s speech that he took notes.

“The sky is the limit for your potential,” Mourning told the youth.

“Consistency,” he practically preached, “is the key to success.”

Mourning told the youth that although excuses abound for mediocrity, entertaining them is a recipe for failure.

And besides, Mourning advised, since January 20, 2009, when President Barack Obama was inaugurated, excuses are no longer tolerated.

Of that magical date, Mourning shared, “I’m so happy that you all were alive to witness that.”

Although bowing out of a sport that makes tremendous demands of the human body in order to tend to a potentially fatal kidney ailment is an explanation that his fans would have accepted, it was an unacceptable one for Mourning.

He was diagnosed with focal segmental glomerular sclerosis in 2000, and temporarily retired from the NBA in 2003. Mourning suited up again after receiving a new kidney from his cousin, Jason Cooper. Three years later, Mourning and his teammates clawed their way to an NBA championship. 

“The decisions you make today determine your future,” said Mourning, sounding like a beloved big brother or uncle or close friend; not a multimillionaire athlete who never has to work another day in his life.

To make the lofty real, to convince the students that success is indeed tangible, the Georgetown University graduate passed around his big, beautiful NBA championship ring.

Zo’s connection to the students was palpable, and mutual. Once his speech was over, he lingered for pictures, for small talk, for one-on-one inspiration. The man clearly enjoys being in the presence of youngsters, seemingly savoring the chance to influence their future.  

Miami Norland Senior High student Carla Gibbs asked Mourning what he plans to do with the rest of his life.

His reply was, essentially, that he’d continue doing what he’s doing, sans the basketball.

“I’m a father and a husband. I have a foundation. I’ll continue to be an active philanthropist,” said the daddy to son Trey, daughter Myka and spouse to Tracy.

Jermaine Sanders from Carol City Senior High wanted to hear Mourning’s take on the role that ethics play in success.

Demonstrating ethical qualities is a part of being successful, Mourning advised.

“You’ve got to have the right ethical values,” he said.

Five deserving students left the luncheon with $2,500 scholarships thanks to County Commissioners and NOBCO members Dennis Moss, Dorrin Rolle, Barbara Jordan and Audrey Edmonson.

Every person in attendance left with a priceless gift thanks to Mourning: Words of wisdom, food for thought, hope.

Photo: Elzie Fuller III