Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning were top two picks of draft and adversaries 25 years ago; today they are true friends

Former teammates Alonzo Mourning and Shaquille O’Neal during a ceremony at American Airlines Arena last December in which the Miami Heat retired Shaq’s number. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

 

MIAMI – Alonzo Mourning and Shaquille O’Neal knew each other only as adversaries in 2005 when the two were brought together in Miami after 12 seasons of battles that Mourning described as “absolute war” because “we were both marking our territory.”

And then it happened. Shaq, having initiated the conversation with the Heat to bring back Mourning, found out early what Zo was all about.

“We were in practice,” Mourning said in an interview with the Palm Beach Post. “I only knew one speed and we were going through drills and I was going hard. He taps me on the shoulder. He said, ‘Listen, slow down. I don’t have it today. If you go hard I got to go hard.’”

“And I looked at him and I said, ‘Man, (expletive) you.’ I said, ‘If your ass gets in foul trouble I got to come in. I got to be ready.’ He got pissed at me.”

That was the start of two foes, two people with opposite personalities off the court and powerful games on the court, better understanding each other and becoming such good friends that a decade later one would be on the stage helping present the other as he entered the Hall of Fame.

“I think he learned to respect me more as a teammate, not just as an adversary, because I used to push him in practice every day,” Mourning, now a Heat vice-president, said.

Alpha males at top of draft

Next week marks the 25th anniversary of the 1992 draft in which Shaq and Mourning were the top two picks, or as Mourning put it “the two alpha males” of the class. Shaq left LSU after three years and Mourning fulfilled his foster mother Fannie Threet’s desire for him to stay four years at Georgetown.

The draft was deep but there was no doubt whose names would be called with the first two picks. The next tier saw a talented group led by Duke’s Christian Laettner. At one point, eight of the top nine picks all played for the Heat with Mourning being a teammate of each of the other seven and for a brief time in 2005 Shaq, Zo and Laettner, the top three picks of the ’92 draft, were with the Heat.

Maybe one day a comparison will be made between 1992 and Thursday’s draft, where the Heat have the 14th pick. And although the top two picks are expected to be point guards and not centers, Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball could develop a rivalry similar to that of Shaq and Mourning.

The gap Shaq and Mourning was pretty wide. Shaq was a mountain of a man, growing into a 7-foot-1, 325-pound specimen rarely seen in the NBA. And he dwarfed Mourning, who at 6-10 and eventually 240 pounds, was one of the stronger players in the league.

There never was any doubt who Orlando would take with the No. 1 pick, leaving Mourning for Charlotte.

“He was 7-1, huge and agile,” Mourning said. “You got to make that investment especially during that day and time where the big men were the focal point of the league. He could catch, he could finish. … he was dominant. And he showed it immediately as soon as he came into the league.”

Being in the same conference at the start of their careers, they would face each other up to four times every year. The battles raged and soon they were establishing themselves as two of the top players at their position with Shaq making the comparison to the legendary Wilt Chamberlain-Bill Russell rivalry, with himself in the role of Wilt and  Mourning as Russell.

Although there were other dominant centers (Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Patrick Ewing), Shaq and Mourning started pulling in the hardware. Both were named to the All-Rookie team in 1993, they were All-Stars multiple times (Shaq 15, Mourning seven), first team All-League (Shaq eight, Mourning one). Shaq was named MVP in 2000 and Mourning was the defensive player of the year in 1999 and 2000.

“Every time we played against each other it was an absolute war because we were both marking our territory, establishing who was going to be the best,” Mourning said. “Unfortunately I ran into some physical obstacles throughout my career but when we played each other it was war. We went after each other. He knows that, too.”

Mourning’s career was derailed when he was diagnosed with a life-threatening kidney disease that forced him to miss nearly two years and undergo a kidney transplant. This was in the prime of his career (before the 2002 season) and when Shaq was coming off three consecutive titles with the Lakers.

Mourning eventually returned. After a brief stint in New Jersey he was not playing in the spring of 2005 when he received a phone call from the one man he has trusted more than any other in his professional career, Heat president Pat Riley.

Shaquille O’Neal, Alonzo Mourning with 2006 championship trophy.

“Basically Pat told me, ‘Shaq wants you here,’” Mourning said. “When I came here he said, ‘Look, I want to win, you want to win. You helped start this. And I want you here.’ He said, ‘Let’s do it.’”

The Heat had acquired Shaq the previous summer, believing by teaming him with Dwyane Wade the path to a championship would be paved. But now, they were asking Zo to return and team up with his biggest nemesis to help increase those chances.

Remember, this rivalry was heated. Shaq was outspoken. He never cared for political correctness and never spared feelings. He mocked Mourning (and Laettner) in a rap song and once compared himself to a Mercedes and Mourning to a BMW.

Shaq even admitted to backing out of a deal with Orlando that would have paid him $80 million when he heard Mourning was re-signing with Miami for more than $100 million. This even though Shaq’s deal was for a higher annual rate being four years compared to Mourning’s seven year agreement. The Magic never upped their offer and Shaq was off to L.A.

“I wanted more than him, he wanted more than me,” Mourning said. “It was a competition.”

Mourning says now the comments never bothered him. “That’s Shaq, though, he hasn’t changed a bit,” he said. But that’s easy to say now considering how the relationship turned.

About 15 months after becoming teammates, Shaq and Mourning were celebrating a title together. Shaq remained the alpha male with Mourning ironically becoming his backup after miraculously resuming his career following his kidney transplant.

“He saw my hunger and my approach to the game and my professionalism,” Mourning said. “We developed this brotherly type of relationship and respect for one another, stronger respect even more because we complemented one another.”

In so many ways.

Old rivals share Hall of Fame moment

Shaquille O’Neal learned he would be entering the Hall of Fame in 2016, two years after Mourning was enshrined. He asked four Hall of Famers to join him on the podium – Bill Russell, Julius Erving, Isiah Thomas and Mourning.

Shaq then honored Mourning during his speech.

“Alonzo Mourning, arch-nemesis turned great friend. We both entered the league together in 1992, had fierce battles together, he’d dunk on me, I’d dunk on him.

“In 2006 we joined forces together to win his first and my fourth title for the Miami Heat. Thank you, Zo. Couldn’t have done it without you.”

Mourning was touched, not only by the moment but just the fact that there he was, sitting on that stage on the most important night of Shaq’s professional career.

That night, before the ceremony, Mourning approached Shaq, who was standing with his mother.

“I said, ‘Thank you for inviting me and being a part of this. I did not think that you thought that much of me,’” Mourning said.

Mourning saw a look on Shaq’s face he had never seen.

“He looked at his mom and said, ‘Can you believe he said that?’ I said, ‘I’m serious. No insult at all, I didn’t think you thought that much of me for me to be on this stage on this night.’

“He grabbed me and hugged me. His mom said, ‘We love you, Zo. What you meant to Shaq’s career, we love you.’ That gave me an understanding of where we stood.”

And now they share more than a title as teammates and a plaque in Springfield. Last season the Heat retired Shaq’s number, raising it to the rafters of AmericanAirlines Arena where Mourning’s already hung.

The first two picks of the draft one quarter of a century earlier forever linked in so many ways.

“Both of our careers were storybook,” Mourning said. “Where he came from a Military background. I came from foster care and the list goes on. Both humble beginnings. We grew up in broken homes. We grew up hungry, wanting more and we played like it.”

[Miami Heat mailbag: Are there any players like James Johnson or Dion Waiters out there to sign this year?]

[LeBron James’ career may end with an L.A. story, but Heat fans would welcome him back with open arms]

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Alonzo Mourning on Pat Riley’s attempt to turn Miami Heat into a contender: ‘This is going to be special’

Alonzo Mourning believes Pat Riley has the Miami Heat on the brink of being a “special” team once again.

MIAMI – Considering he was the centerpiece to Pat Riley’s first rebuilding effort in Miami, Alonzo Mourning is as familiar with how the Heat president works as anybody.

Now, 22 years and four make overs later, Mourning, the organization’s vice president, is confident Riley will succeed once again as the Heat officially move on from the Big Three era.

“This is going to be even more special. I think this is going to be even more special considering how it all fell apart,” Mourning told the Palm Beach Post, referencing the departures of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh’s health.

“It happened to me, illness.” Mourning missed nearly two full seasons during the prime of his career after being diagnosed with a disease that led to a kidney transplant. “Pat had to rebuild. With Chris and LeBron, D-Wade leaving, same thing. Rebuilding. He’s one of the greatest basketball architects on the face of the earth. He knows what it takes to win. He knows what to do when it pertains to developing a champion. We’ve seen him do it time and time and time again. I trust this will be no different.”

Since James, Bosh and Wade led the Heat to four consecutive Finals appearances and two titles, James returned to Cleveland in 2014, Wade signed with Chicago last summer after 13 seasons in Miami and Bosh has missed the equivalent of nearly two full seasons, including all of last season, because of issues with blood clots. The Heat are expected to release Bosh by the end of the month and after an NBA doctor agreed that Bosh is dealing with a career-ending illness Miami will receive full cap relief.

[LeBron James’ career may end with an L.A. story, but Heat fans would welcome him back with open arms]

[A look at each player on Heat’s 15-man roster: Who will be back next season?]

The Palm Beach Post sat down with Mourning to talk about the 25th anniversary of Shaquille O’Neal and Mourning being the top two picks in the NBA draft and how he and O’Neal went from adversaries to great friends. Mourning also talked about how he then became the first piece to Riley’s initial rebuild in Miami and how Riley once again is attempting to turn the Heat into a contender.

Mourning was impressed with how last season’s team turned an 11-30 start into a 30-11 finish, missing the playoffs by one game. And he believes Miami would have been the team facing Golden State in the Finals and not Cleveland if Bosh were healthy.

“Obviously if Chris was playing healthy it’s a different story in the Eastern Conference with us,” he said. “We probably go through Cleveland. … Right through them. We probably beat them. We really do. I think we had enough tools to get it done.

“Can you image if Chris was healthy. Not just with Hassan (Whiteside). Goran (Dragic), what he did this year. And Dion (Waiters) and then JJ (James Johnson). Oh my God. If you put a healthy Chris Bosh with all of them, that’s scary team against Cleveland.”

Nobody knows, not even Zo, what the Heat will look like in six weeks, when free agency settles down. First there is the question if Miami is able to retain one or both of its two main free agents – Waiters and Johnson. And then if Riley pursues a big name free agent like Jazz small forward Gordon Hayward or Clippers power forward Blake Griffin.

But Mourning is confident Riley will find the right combination for the Heat to be back near the top of the conference, regardless of the quality of the free agent class.

And one reason is what he is witnessing this off season.

“There’s enough out there to make it work,” he said. “It’s enough out there to get us back again. Listen, this team and the pieces that we have, the coaching staff, the culture that we have, the mentality of the guys coming here. … unseen before guys coming in this early this summer.

“I saw them in the locker room before I came upstairs. They’re down there, I’m like, ‘Good God, the dedication these young guys have to want to be good. They want to win.’ We drill it in them. They see (the rings) on our fingers every day we come in here. They want to be there and you know what, I think this year kind of gave them a little confidence they can be there if they do it the right way.”

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2017 NBA draft lottery: Miami Heat will have 14th overall pick in June 22 draft

Mark Tatum, the NBA’s deputy commissioner, announces that the New York Knicks secured the fourth pick during the league’s draft lottery, in New York, May 19, 2015. (Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

MIAMI — The suspense surrounding the Heat’s draft lottery fate was short-lived.

The first envelope opened by NBA Deputy Commissioner Mark Tatum revealed the Heat logo just minutes into Tuesday night’s ESPN broadcast. This signaled the expected, as Miami left the lottery with the 14th overall pick in the June 22 draft. Continue reading “2017 NBA draft lottery: Miami Heat will have 14th overall pick in June 22 draft”

Miami Heat: 5 questions you’re probably asking yourself (with answers) about the NBA draft lottery

A general overall view of the 2015 NBA Draft Lottery on May 19, 2015 at the New York Hilton Midtown in New York City. (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

MIAMI — The Heat just missed the playoffs this season, but they did make the draft lottery.

While 16 of the NBA’s 30 teams advance to the playoffs, the other 14 teams participate in the lottery. On Tuesday night, the 2017 draft lottery will take place to determine the first-round draft order of the 14 non-playoff teams.

ESPN will air the the lottery at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday. Continue reading “Miami Heat: 5 questions you’re probably asking yourself (with answers) about the NBA draft lottery”

Alonzo Mourning to represent Miami Heat at NBA draft lottery

A general overall view of the 2014 NBA Draft Lottery on May 20, 2014 at the ABC News’ ‘Good Morning America’ Times Square Studio in New York City. (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

MIAMI — Alonzo Mourning has been representing the Heat for a long time — on the court, as a member of the team’s front office and as a prominent face in the South Florida community.

Mourning, who is Miami’s Vice President of Player Programs, will now represent the Heat at Tuesday’s NBA draft lottery. It’s the second consecutive time Miami has picked Mourning to represent the organization at the lottery, as the Hall of Famer also sat in front of the Heat logo in 2015 when the team ended up with the No. 10 pick that later turned into Justise Winslow. Continue reading “Alonzo Mourning to represent Miami Heat at NBA draft lottery”