Statistics have never been the most eloquent spokesmen for basketball's premier centers. Wilt's stats oversold his achievements. Russell's undersold his. Walton, Mikan and Kareem would sooner nod at the titles won by the teams they played for than invoke any personal numbers. Thus when we use astonishing stats to make the case for outstanding centers, we do so advisedly.
But to illustrate how Alonzo Mourning has developed—from prodigy to enigma and back again, as his senior season at Georgetown winds down—permit us this one statistical indulgence. The figures come from Hoya sports information director for basketball Bill Shapland, who earlier this season noticed that Georgetown's guards had unusually high rebound totals. Shapland gave the matter some thought and then consulted the statistician's manual, where he came upon the beginning of an explanation. According to subsection (a) (3) of article 1, section 3, a player should be credited with a rebound when "tipping or batting a ball to a teammate so that the teammate or another teammate is the first to gain control."
After swatting away six shots in Sunday's 72-68 victory over Syracuse, Mourning had blocked 118 shots for the season. That's more than he blocked in each of the previous two seasons, and he is within reach of the school record of 169 he set as a slap-happy freshman. Yet Mourning has kept the majority of this season's rejections in play rather than sending them noisily out of bounds, and many have found their way into the hands of smaller Hoyas. By the book, then, each shot redirected into a teammate's hands should be a rebound credited to Mourning, not to whoever winds up with it.
That we begin with the blocked shot is fitting, because Mourning's college career has also been an interrupted arc. As a freshman he seemed assured of joining the pantheon of pivotmen and of someday bringing Georgetown a national championship. Then life with its huge paw came over from the weak side. There was a disappointing loss to Duke in the regional finals of the NCAA tournament—the closest Mourning will likely ever come to a Final Four. His sophomore season had barely begun when he found himself in a federal courtroom, called to account for his friendship with Rayful Edmond III, the notorious D.C. drug lord who is now serving a life sentence for selling crack cocaine. Several months later, there came a flap over an allegedly anti-Semitic remark he directed at Nadav Henefeld, the Israeli forward who played for Connecticut, while the teams were lining up for a free throw. (Though Mourning was clearly jawing at Henefeld, everyone involved denied his comment was anti-Semitic.) Soon thereafter Georgetown was once again prematurely eliminated from the NCAAs, this time by Xavier. It was as if all the adversity was a series of rejections—whack! whack! whack!—all coming on a single possession, the ball always in play, Mourning shooting yet again and...whack!
Georgetown is the Harvard of the Jesuits, the order known as God's Marines. So rarefied a place doesn't style itself as a staging ground for talking trash or cavorting with a drug lord. But if as a junior Mourning was ready to flourish, the opportunity to do so would elude him, this lime through no fault of his own.
First, 7'2" Dikembe Mutombo, a senior, had established himself as a Big East center. Mutombo had come literally out of Africa, with no daunting expectations, only unfolding possibilities. Comparisons were irresistible, and Mourning, who had been found in the bulrushes of tidewater Virginia not far from where Moses Malone had emerged, came up short. Further, midway through the season, Mourning suffered a serious injury for the first time in his career, straining the arch of his left foot late in a game in which he had outplayed Christian Laettner and the Hoyas had defeated Duke. He missed nine games and muddled through the rest of the schedule.
There had been much talk about how playing power forward alongside Mutombo would benefit Mourning in the long run—out on the floor he would improve his passing and learn the dribble-drive, thereby enhancing his pro value—but this theory was largely put forth by observers trying to fit a sorry season with a good face. When the Hoyas went into the pressing defense that is their signature, coach John Thompson used Mutombo as the last line of defense. The 6'10", 245-pound Mourning, who once blocked 27 shots as a youngster in an AAU game, sat on the bench.
Thompson, an unapologetic capitalist, thus did his part to make Mutombo a millionaire. The former Hoya is now a Denver Nugget and a leading candidate for NBA Rookie of the Year. Thompson is happily fulfilling his fiduciary duty again this season, plugging Mourning into the same spot in the star system. At week's end, Mourning was averaging 22 points and 11.8 rebounds and was among the national leaders in both field goal percentage (.610) and blocked shots. That others—Laettner, Shaquille O'Neal, Jimmy Jackson—receive more prominent mention for the player of the year award bothers Thompson not at all. "Recognition in America is how much money you're paid, not some All-America team you're named to," he says. "And Zo will be paid. To try to get the other recognition is foolish. We're not interested in winning popularity contests here at Georgetown.
"These NBA people, coming through here with their questionnaires, wanting to sec film, they're hilarious to me. Dikembe was the new kid on the block, and the new kid on the block is always the big deal. Last year Zo would have gotten all the blocked shots and rebounds Dikembe got if I'd put Zo at center."
Some NBA scouts remain skeptical of Mourning's offense, in spite of his high shooting percentage and an ability, showcased this season, to toss down jump hooks with either hand. One such skeptic says, "Another scout told me he'd seen Mourning make a drop-step move. I told him I'd believe it when I see it."