That same day Mourning was instructed to walk down the hallway to promote blood circulation to his new kidney. As he made his way down the ward, he peered into several rooms. In one he saw an older woman recovering from a lung transplant. Farther down the hall was a 15-year-old boy who was receiving a new kidney after having previously undergone a heart transplant. "I remember thinking, Things could be a whole lot worse for you," he says.
Over the next several months, however, Mourning rarely left his Miami home because he was self-conscious about his frail state. ("My strength is my confidence," he says. "I didn't want to go out anywhere with my family because I didn't feel like I could protect them.") In February 2004, two months after the transplant, he was permitted to walk on a treadmill, and a short time later he began bench-pressing 20-pound dumbbells. "My arms were literally shaking trying to push them up," he says.
Today Mourning takes approximately 20 pills daily, including cholesterol and blood-pressure medications to counteract side effects of his antirejection drugs. During practices and games he wears a small plastic shield with foam padding to protect his kidney. Doctors have told Mourning that if he sticks to his current regimen, he is not jeopardizing his long-term health, but he still faces a 30% chance that the disease will recur in the new kidney.
Mourning says his comeback would be a waste of time if he weren't competing for a championship, which explains his much-criticized decision to demand a trade from New Jersey one year into the four-year, $22 million deal he signed with the Nets in July 2003. New owner Bruce Ratner, Mourning argues, took the Nets out of title contention when, in a cost-cutting move, he didn't re-sign forward Kenyon Martin. In December 2004 Mourning did not accompany the team on a road trip, and a week later the Nets packaged him in a trade with Toronto that landed them Vince Carter. Mourning then agreed to a $9 million buyout on his contract that cleared him to sign with Miami.
His machinations damaged his reputation with fans and team executives around the league, but he says they fail to understand his motives. He believes that his illness has afforded him a chance to become the kind of spokesman for kidney research and organ transplants that Armstrong has become for the fight against cancer. He believes that playing for anything less than a title would diminish his contribution. "That's what I marvel at," says Riley. "Most guys who are getting up in years simply quit on the dream, but Zo sincerely wants to win a championship--otherwise he wouldn't be playing."
Says Mourning, who has raised nearly $10 million more through his foundation (www.amcharities.org), "I'm not back to just play basketball," he says. "I'm back to have a positive influence and do something with this opportunity."
? More on Pat Riley's return to the bench at SI.com/NBA.