'Zo roaring to go
Mourning hopes his comeback is just beginning
MIAMI (AP) -- As if Alonzo Mourning hadn't been through enough already, he recently watched a videotape of last season's final game -- a heartbreaking one-point loss to the arch rival New York Knicks.
Mourning remembers all too well how the game came out, but he was nonetheless surprised by what he saw.
"I amazed myself watching myself on TV," he said Friday. "I was like, 'Man, look how quick I was.' My first step, just getting to the rim, was very, very quick. It's amazing how much different my play was then."
Much has happened in the 11 months since that game.
Mourning was diagnosed with a kidney disease in October, sat out the first 69 games this season, made a gallant comeback last month and will be in the lineup Saturday for the Miami Heat's playoff opener against his former team, the Charlotte Hornets.
He's not the same player who started in the 1999 All-Star Game and was twice named the NBA's best defensive player. Gone along with the old quickness are some of his endurance and strength, and he's still learning to play with first-year teammates Eddie Jones and Anthony Mason.
"We're getting Zo not at his very best," coach Pat Riley said.
But Mourning made remarkable progress in his 13 games. Against Central Division champion Milwaukee on Tuesday, he played 33 minutes, scored 25 points and blocked five shots, all season-highs, and won the game with a last-second dunk.
He hopes his comeback has just begun.
"If Mourning can play 25 to 30 minutes a game, the Heat are probably the most talented team in the Eastern Conference," Bucks coach George Karl said. "They're going to be very difficult to beat."
On the other hand, the Heat's health concerns could mean a difficult series against the Hornets, who are counting on rebounding, defense and Jamal Mashburn to pull off an upset. Playing against his former team, Mashburn is eager to disprove the reputation he earned in Miami for folding in the clutch.
"This could be the start of something special," he said.
Mashburn was part of a nine-player trade last August that also sent P.J. Brown to Charlotte while sending Mason and Jones to Miami. Fans in both cities know both teams well.
"There will be a lot of booing going on," Brown said. "But it's going to be fun."
The Heat received a lift Friday when point guard Tim Hardaway returned to practice after missing the final three regular-season games with a bruised left foot. Miami's five best players -- Hardaway, Mourning, Jones, Mason and Brian Grant -- have been on the court together for less than two minutes, but all may be available Saturday.
"We've got a golden opportunity here," Mourning said. "It's something that we should really take advantage of, especially when we've got all the chess pieces in place."
Mourning returned March 27 after steroid treatment sent his disease -- focal glomerulosclerosis -- into remission. His urine and blood levels are monitored daily, and the results have been good so far.
He's averaging 23.5 minutes per game. Projected over 40 minutes per game, he would be averaging 23.1 points, 13.1 rebounds and 4.0 blocked shots -- all better than his career averages.
"Enough of me being a kidney patient," he said. "That's over with. I'm out there on the floor, and I expect to perform at a certain level."
Mourning, 31, decided to return this season after it became clear that doctors couldn't guarantee he'll be able to play next season. He may need a kidney transplant eventually and acknowledges that this could be his last shot at an NBA title.
"That's the way I'm approaching this, because I don't know what the future is going to bring," he said.
That includes the playoffs, which have been torturous for Mourning. He and the Heat were humiliated by the Chicago Bulls two years in a row, then came elimination the past three years at the hands of the Knicks, twice on last-second shots.
"You use it as fuel," Mourning said. "At the same time, you don't live in the past."
The future is uncertain, the past best forgotten. So for Zo, it's now all about Saturday night.