Alonzo Mourning was locked in a low-post slam dance with Milwaukee Bucks center Ervin Johnson. Referee Joe Crawford kept an eye on the battle, watching as Mourning put a shoulder into Johnson and tried to move him from the basket, as if attempting to push a stalled car. "Watch the body," Crawford warned. "Careful with the body, 'Zo."
Mourning, the Miami Heat's 6'10" center, has been getting that advice in various forms ever since doctors told him last October that he had a form of focal glomerulosclerosis, a debilitating kidney disease that they expected would sideline him for the entire 2000-01 season and perhaps end his career. He defied that prognosis by returning to action on March 27, but his doctors, who approved his comeback, made it clear that Mourning, 31, isn't cured. Neither is the Heat, judging from the rustiness Mourning showed in his first few games and the difficulty his teammates had incorporating him into the offense.
The euphoria over Mourning's surprise return was tempered by the Heat's loss to the Toronto Raptors in his first game back, a 101-92 defeat in which Mourning came off the bench to play 19 minutes and score nine points on 3-of-11 shooting. Miami lost again two nights later, 104-96 to the Bucks, as Mourning had eight points in 19 minutes. He was more effective in a 97-90 win over the Chicago Bulls last Saturday, with 12 points and five rebounds in 16 minutes, but it had become evident that Mourning's comeback would not immediately elevate the Heat—which was 43-29 through Sunday and stood third in the Eastern Conference—to the level of the conference leaders, the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee.
Because of his dulled skills and diminished stamina, Mourning is at this point nothing more than a solid backup center. "I never thought it would be easy," he said on Friday. "I knew coming back was going to be one of the biggest challenges in my life." The challenge is complicated by the uncertainty over how his body, with the disease in remission, will react to increased physical activity. "I don't have a crystal ball, but I don't think it will hurt him to play," says one of his physicians, Gerald B. Appel. "If he were my son, I would let him play."
Mourning's ailment attacks the filters in the kidneys that remove waste from the blood. He takes as many as 14 pills a day to help control the disease, but he understands there's no guarantee that the medication will continue to work, whether he plays or not. "I know the future isn't promised," Mourning says. "Dr. Appel tells me that in six months I could be worse off or I could be better. Every time I step on the court, I'm scared."
If Mourning stays healthy, he could cause a shuffling of Miami's rotation and a ruffling of feathers. "Some adjustments are going to have to be made, but you can't tell exactly what they're going to be," forward Brian Grant said before the Bucks game. "We've had to get used to playing without 'Zo, and now we have to get used to having him in there. It's a good problem to have, but you can't expect everything to click right away."
The best-case scenario is that the rest of the season will unfold roughly the way the game with Milwaukee did—with Miami playing raggedly at the start and gradually getting better. Mourning entered the game midway through the first quarter, and teammates immediately forced two passes to him. Both were stolen. Moments later Mourning stumbled while trying to make a move in the low post and lost the ball. But he made his presence felt on defense, most notably with a brilliant play on a Jason Caffey dunk attempt. Mourning also converted four of eight shots.
Overall, it was an improvement over his first game but not enough to suit him. "I'm playing awful," Mourning said after the following day's practice. "I don't want to keep using the excuse that I've been out six months. I don't want to use the excuse that I'm taking all this medicine. I expect to perform at a certain level."
Mourning's teammates haven't been so demanding of him. In fact, they've been downright protective, both in their reviews of his performance and in the way they treat him on the court. Because his illness makes it important for him to stay hydrated, a member of the Heat staff waits with a bottle of water whenever he comes off the court. During a timeout against the Bucks, Mourning went straight into the Miami huddle without getting the bottle. Forward A.C. Green ran over to get the water for Mourning. Careful with the body, 'Zo.
Riley can only hope that the players' concern and affection for Mourning will help them accept the inevitable redefining of roles as the offense is retooled to accommodate him. Forward Anthony Mason, who joined the Heat in a trade with the Charlotte Hornets before this season, is likely to be the most affected. He has done an admirable job of filling in for Mourning as Miami's primary low-post threat, but he'll have to give up some of those back-to-the-basket touches. If Riley moves Mourning back into the starting lineup—which he says he has no intention of doing immediately—Mason, who started in the All-Star game only two months ago, could be relegated to the bench, since Grant is sure to be the starting power forward and Bruce Bowen has established himself as a defensive stopper at small forward.