My memories have all the reliability of a wooden wagon wheel traversing the nine circles of hell. But some memories come with great confidence, absolute surety that what I remember really did happen. Besides, there’s always Youtube to verify whether or not something happened how I remember it. Way back in 1993 when the Celtics were decaying and the Hornets were on the come up, these two teams speeding in opposite directions met in the first round of the playoffs. The Celtics, though Birdless and without Reggie Lewis who had collapsed in game one of the series, were still Boston – at least to the 12-year-old me. What I remember was chaotic, a lot of bodies thrashing around, Larry Johnson going straight up hero ball, and failing and then the unlikely savior in an unlikely spot: Alonzo Mourning, all six-feet ten-inches of Georgetown-molded masculine fury ending up at the top of the college three-point line with seconds on the clock. A broken play? Faulty communication? Limbs akimbo? Alonzo Mourning from 20 feet? For the win? For the win! For the series-clinching win!
His momentum carried him backward and he laid out like a human starfish, fists clinched in the great exhale of victory, wrists covered thick sweatbands that were more like forearm covers than wristbands and reminded me of Zeus’s character in No Holds Barred.
But unlike Tiny Lester, Mourning was never a bully, just a deeply intense competitor with a well-defined musculature that revealed either unfair genes or a commitment to weight training that was well ahead of his contemporaries. Whatever the case, his undersized height and ripped frame complimented what seemed like a semi-controllable mania that took hold when Mourning stepped on the court.
Since he was drafted the same year as Shaq, I always imagined them as some kind of modern version of Wilt and Russell. Shaq was Chamberlain, overflowing with charisma, size, and skill that made the game almost too easy. Zo, like Russell, was relatively undersized and contrasted the Shaq/Chamberlain offensive dominance with gritty, night watchman-type dedication to rim-protecting defensive prowess. He was twice-named Defensive Player of the Year and twice led the league in blocks, but however shiny and defining those accolades and stats are, they fail to convey the barely harnessed rage with which Zo played. His mania was a real-life, living, nostril-flared breathing version of Kevin Garnett’s Euro-centric bully-minded posturing, a mindset that somehow singed itself across the inner linings of my memory.
That those same genes that gifted Mourning with the physique of a Conan-esque warrior would ravage his kidney with disease is tragic, but Mourning’s insistence on coming back to the game and eventually winning a title somehow fit perfectly with what may as well be a mythical will. We don’t need Throwback Thursdays to remember the glory of our favorite athletes, because somewhere in the pixelated videos and memory centers of the brain, a bulging-biceped Alonzo Mourning is eternally hitting game-winners in Charlotte.