Dear 12-year-old Alonzo,
Your angels are coming.
It won’t be long now, kid. They’re on their way. I promise.
I know it may not seem like it at this point. I know that you’re hurting — with Mom and Dad deciding to go their separate ways. The counselors, the therapists, the social workers. Not being able to pick which parent to live with because you love them both so much. Choosing to give foster care a shot instead.
It’s been part rollercoaster and part blur. And I get that you may be struggling to stay positive.
But that all changes right now. Today, when you leave the group home, you’re going to head over to a nice house on Oliver Avenue in Chesapeake, Virginia, to meet a woman named Fannie Threet. She’ll smile big and wide, and let you know that her home is now your home. In that moment, right then and there, you’ll have met your guardian angel.
Ms. Threet will be a retired schoolteacher, a woman of God — someone who loves and cares and understands. Someone who gives and gives and gives, expecting nothing in return. She’ll have fostered 49 children over the years. So you’ll be in good hands, and things will start looking up for you almost immediately. She’s going to send you to Indian River Junior High — home of the Braves! — where, at 13, you’ll be taller than all the other students … but also taller than the teachers and the principal. Once you get there, you’ll be able to put on the school’s blue-on-blue uniform and finally compete in the sport you feel like you were born to play.
Of course. What else?!
Let’s just say there are going to be two different sections of your life ... everything that came before you decided to start playing basketball, and then everything after.- Alonzo Mourning
I mean, back home with Mom and Dad you had the curtains with all those helmets on them in your room. The bedsheets, too. And the metal, football-themed trash can. It was all football.
And, before long, you’ll finally have a chance to hit the field and release some of that pent up aggression — to tackle people and be … nasty. Defensive end! Sack master Zo!!! There will be no stopping you. It’s going to be awesome.
For a little while.
Then, two problems….
1) Junior high schools don’t have size-14 cleats to give out to their 13-year-olds, and Lord knows you don’t have a pair of your own. So, you’ll be running around out there in basketball sneakers, slipping and sliding in the mud.
2) When you’re practically twice the size of everyone else, the littler guys just tend to dive at your knees to try and take you out. There are going to be some close calls. It’ll get old fast, Alonzo.
With that in mind, here’s my first bit of advice, young man: Don’t get too attached to the game of football. Keep an open mind when it comes to playing other sports. And … I can’t believe I’m saying this, but … start actually listening to what people are saying in the hallways at school.
“Shoot, you can touch the ceiling! What are you doing not playing basketball?”
“What’s going on? You’re a giant. You don’t play basketball?!?!?”
“Dude?!?!?! Come onnnn. You’re bigger than my dad!”
Peer pressure, man. I mean, what can I tell you? I guess it’s not always a bad thing.
Because once you give in and stop fighting it, and you head in to meet with Coach Lessane? Let’s just say there are going to be two different sections of your life, with a clear dividing line — it’ll be everything that came before you decided to start playing basketball, and then everything after.
So after football season, maybe grab a hand towel and start cleaning all the mud off those basketball sneakers, Alonzo.
I think you’re going to need them before too long.
It won’t happen for you right away.
As happy as Coach Lessane will be to see you stroll into his office to discuss joining the junior high hoops team, he’s somehow going to show his appreciation by keeping your butt plastered to the bench.
He’s not going to play you just because you’re taller than everyone else. And you’ll absolutely hate riding the pine. But it’ll motivate you, and make you bear down. Before long, basketball is going to become your sole focus. It’s going to be all basketball all the time for you. And 6'5" 13-year-olds who play a lot of basketball tend to get noticed sooner or later.
You’ll sign up for AAU ball and start going to camps — Five-Star, Old Dominion, just camp after camp, and all free of charge. You’ll link up with a man named Boo Williams and play for his traveling team. He’ll become a mentor and enable you to travel the country playing against some of the best competition out there.
It won’t be all fun and games, though. You’ll still be gangly and awkward at that point, growing into your body. You’re going to get your butt kicked pretty much on a daily basis. At one point, Boo is going to assemble all the best players from the Tidewater area and set up a game against the Russian junior national team.
It’s not going to be pretty.
Those Russian dudes will be much more physical than you and your friends. It’ll feel like you just went 12 rounds with a heavyweight boxer. They’ll destroy you guys. You’ll be embarrassed. And you’re going to absolutely hate that feeling. But it’ll be the best thing that could’ve happened to you. Because you’ll have no choice but to get better. It’ll be either that … or keep getting dunked on.
You’ll start lifting weights with the football team at the high school, getting stronger, practicing your footwork. Let’s just say those Russians are going to flip a switch for you.
And check this out, Alonzo: There isn’t going to be an off switch.
Because you’ll have no choice but to get better. It’ll be either that … or keep getting dunked on.- Alonzo Mourning
By the time you’re a sophomore, you’ll be the No. 1 ranked player in your class. You’ll set records. Score and rebound like no one Hampton Roads has ever seen before. Average 12 blocks a game by the time you graduate.
Two years after that first international beatdown, Boo is going to schedule a rematch against the Russians.
It’ll be another massacre. But this time … you’ll mop the floor with them.
God bless America!
Just because Ms. Threet’s TV only gets four channels, that doesn’t mean you won’t watch it sometimes. The television is actually going to be your introduction to a team, a brand of basketball, and a brotherhood that will be a gigantic part of your life going forward.
Not too long after you move in with her, in 1982, you’re going to turn on the TV in the living room of her house and be fortunate enough to click over to a college hoops matchup between Georgetown and North Carolina. You’ll see a big, tall kid named Patrick Ewing, a freshman, block what seemed like the first three or four — or 20 — shots the Tarheels put up.
It’ll be like finding your inspiration — like the first time Bruno Mars heard a Prince song on the radio. Pat will be the ultimate intimidator. You’ll want to emulate him. You’ll immediately begin modeling your game after his. Then, a few years later, after putting a hurting on the Russians, you’ll head up to Princeton for the Nike All-American camp. As you’re on the floor stretching, you’re going to look up into the stands and just about lose your mind.
There he is. Patrick Ewing. In the arena. To see you play! At one point he’s going to walk down to shake your hand. And, I cannot stress this enough, Zo….
Hold it together, kid.
Just keep cool, shake his hand, and then … go out and put on a show.- Alonzo Mourning
You’ll be 17 at that point. It’ll be one of the coolest things imaginable for you. But just keep cool, shake his hand, and then … go out and put on a show.
All the best players in the country will be at that camp — Shawn Kemp, Stanley Roberts, Chris Mills, you name it. Show them all why you’re the one everybody’s calling the best player in the country. Dunk on all those dudes. Make Pat stand up and take notice. And when he does, be sure to recognize the guy directly to his right. That man by Pat’s side the entire time? The guy with the wry smile on his face every time you block a shot? It’s Coach John Thompson. Big John.
Say hello to another angel, my friend.
Big John is someone you’re going to get to know extremely well throughout the college recruitment process.
Things will really start heating up after you take your five visits — Syracuse, Georgia Tech, Virginia, Maryland and Georgetown. That’s when the coaches will have to come over to the house and try to impress Ms. Threet. One by one, they’ll all show up, sit down on the couch in her living room and make their pitches.
Coach Thompson will ask to be last.
When he arrives, you’re basically going to witness a masterclass in how to win over someone and get to the result you want. Watching it all go down, it’ll leave a lasting impact on you. It’ll be textbook, really. Boeheim and Cremins and all those guys, they’ll walk through the door promising the moon and stars — everything you could ever want, including a guaranteed starting spot freshman year. It’ll basically be: “You tell us, Zo. What do you need?”
Then it’ll be Big John’s turn.
It’ll be no contest. Coach will have done his homework. Education will be at the core of everything he does, and he’ll know Ms. Threet is a retired schoolteacher. It’s going to be a match made in heaven.
“Ms. Threet,” he’ll say, looking her straight in the eyes, “We would love for Alonzo to come to Georgetown. But if he does, he’s going to have to work hard and earn everything he gets. The only thing I can promise you is, if he does that, and goes to class, Alonzo will graduate with a diploma from one of the finest universities in the entire country. He’s going to get a great education at Georgetown.”
It’ll be brilliant. No mention of playing time. No cars or gifts for the family or handouts or booster connections or anything like that. Just education.
Right at that moment, it’ll be like….
One second after Big John finishes talking, Ms. Threet is going to turn to you and smile. “Well,” she’ll say, “We know where you’ll be going to school.”
A few months later, you’ll be on the Georgetown campus riding to class on a 10-speed bike and learning from the best mentor imaginable.
And I don’t mean a basketball mentor. It’s going to be so much bigger than that. I’m talking about someone who will teach you more about life and respect and honor and compassion than anyone before, or since.
Coach Thompson will be like a father to you. The wisdom he’ll share with you will last a lifetime — whether about defensive positioning, how to negotiate for yourself, how to show gratitude to someone who has made an impact on you, and even current events and world affairs.
During this one practice sophomore year, 1989, you guys will be on the court doing your drills and he’s going to call things to a halt. He’ll sit the team down and ask everyone what historic event was currently taking place. After about five or six wrong answers, Coach Thompson will shake his head from side to side. “I’m ashamed of you all,” he’ll say. “Today, in Germany, the Berlin Wall came down. This is one of the biggest developments of the 20th century. It’s important! You need to remember life isn’t just basketball. Read the paper, watch the news. Be informed! That’s all part of your responsibility as a member of this team and university community. It’s part of your responsibility as a human being!”
When he says those words, Alonzo, let me tell you … you’re going to feel them. You’ll understand immediately what he means, and from that point forward you’ll be a more knowledgeable, informed person. Big John will teach you a ton on the court, of course. But what’s going to stick with you the most is the other stuff. The life lessons. The advice. The love and support.
The man is a straight-up angel.
When it comes time to move on from college, you’ll have earned a diploma from Georgetown and put up points, rebounding and blocks numbers that will enable you to be drafted second overall by a team from Charlotte.
Yes, yes … I know. But, yeah, this will be the NBA. (They’ll have a team by that point, I swear. The Hornets is what they’ll be called. Blue and purple. Uniforms created by a famous fashion designer. It’ll be a whole thing.) They’ll have this guy on the team who was drafted first overall the year before and dresses up like a grandma for shoe commercials. Also, there will be a 5'3" point guard. Like I said, it’ll be a whole thing. And you’ll have the time of your life playing there. Your rookie season, you guys will even make the playoffs for the first time in franchise history.
But things are really going to take off for you after you move on to play for Miami. (Oh man, yeah … same deal there. Just trust me, they’re going to have a team, too. The Heat. Logo like a ball on fire going through the goal. I’m sure you can picture it.) Pat Riley, the legend, is going to be their coach, and he’ll make a trade in 1995 to bring you in to serve as the team’s man in the middle.
In Miami, you’ll make All-Star teams, be named All-NBA, win Defensive Player of the Year, lead the league in blocks, and on and on. But get this: You’re also going to drag the Knicks coach across the court while he’s hanging on to your leg during an NBA playoff game.
Yeah, man, you read that right.
It’s going to be a trip playing in Miami because you’re going to be part of one of the greatest — and nastiest — rivalries in NBA history. Heat vs. Knicks is going to be must-see TV during the ’90s for sure.
So although you have nothing against New York City at the moment, and the town actually seems kind of cool, it may make sense to get an early start souring on the Big Apple now, rather than waiting. Because by the time those Knicks/Heat playoff matchups happen in the late ’90s, you’re going to need to have worked up a level of animosity that is way beyond anything you may have felt for those Russians.
Pat Riley will have coached the Knicks before leaving to lead the Heat, so New Yorkers will already despise him by the time things really heat up. But also, the Knicks will be led by a former Riley assistant, Jeff Van Gundy, who runs all the same stuff. You’re going to meet in the playoffs over and over and over again, and it will be like Frankenstein against Frankenstein. Both teams will have the same mentality, the same tough-minded approach, the same plays. The games will almost always be close … and violent.
Just some of the most intense, physical basketball you’ll ever experience. Things are going to escalate, Alonzo, if you know what I mean.
You’re going to learn all about the passive voice in your English composition classes at Georgetown, but I’m going to give you an introduction to it right now.
Brawls will happen.
There will be a bunch of them over the course of four consecutive playoff matchups. Dudes will be getting flipped into the stands. Punches getting thrown. Players getting tackled. You name it. Just brawl after brawl. And I’m not going to say whose fault it all was. But, I mean….
It was definitely the Knicks’ fault. Hahaha.
The best way I can describe it to you is it will feel like having a piece of gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe.- Alonzo Mourning
You’re going to love every second of it, though. That type of fierce competition is going to raise the hair on the back of your neck, and you’ll have so much fun in those moments. Before each new season, you’re going to grab a bright red sharpie, pull out your calendar, and draw a giant X on the dates of all the Knicks games. You’ll count down the days to those matchups and make sure you’re ready to bring your A-game on those nights for sure.
And the animosity I spoke of? It’ll be real. By the time you and your former Hornets teammate Larry Johnson (“Grandmama!”) come to blows in ’98, it will have gotten to the point where there’ll be nothing about New York’s basketball team, or the city as a whole, that you like. You won’t be able to go out to eat there without getting screamed at. You’ll be public enemy No. 1 in that town. They’ll hate you. And the feeling will be mutual.
In some ways it will be a shame. Because they really are going to be some incredible basketball games. True battles, ones for the books. But I have a feeling that 50 or 100 years down the road, most folks will only remember one thing from that string of games.
And let me just say, you’re not even going to feel it happening in the moment. Van Gundy? Their coach? That dude is tiiiiiny. And your adrenaline is going to be so high, your focus so set on getting at LJ, you won’t even notice Jeff at first. You won’t even really feel him down there.
The best way I can describe it to you is it will feel like having a piece of gum stuck to the bottom of your shoe.
You won’t realize he’s there until you look down and see him completely wrapped around your leg, holding on for dear life. It’ll be arms, legs, everything. Like how a little kid would do it. And you know what’s funny? You’re not going to be mad about it at all.
You’ll respect him for doing that.
You’ll admire Jeff for exemplifying the fight his team showed, and for doing all he could to have their backs. It’ll show great tenacity. So, you’ll tip your cap.
You’re going to respect Jeff Van Gundy for being the gum on the bottom of your shoe.
Getting suspended for that fight with LJ is going to be a bummer. You’ll miss out on Game 5 of the series in ’98, and your team will get bounced from the playoffs without you.
Despite all the awards and accolades that will pile up, you’ll still be missing a ring. And prior to 2000, you’re going to think the worst thing to have happened in your life was failing to win any championships during those seasons when the Heat and Knicks were going at it. But after winning Olympic gold in Sydney that year, you’re going to find out real quick that there are whole different levels of adversity.
When you get back to the States, you’re going to feel completely run-down and tired. At first, you’ll write it off as nothing. Even when your legs start swelling up, you’ll ignore it. You’ll know something’s up, but you won’t get checked out. You’ll put it off. It’ll take a mandatory team physical prior to the season to get to the bottom of things. First, it will be abnormalities in the bloodwork. Then, a biopsy of your kidney will reveal that you have a rare kidney disease called focal segmental glomerulosclerosis. It’s a disease that scars the filters of the kidney, causing swelling and lethargy. You’ll be told that sometimes it can even be fatal.
You’ll be terrified.
But there will be more to it. There’ll be a very specific reason why you’re terrified. You’ll be scared because you don’t know a single thing about focal segmental glomerulosclerosis. You won’t even know how to pronounce it correctly.
Don’t ever let anyone tell you angels aren’t real.- Alonzo Mourning
After the initial shock wears off, you’re going to … think about Big John. What would Coach Thompson do in this situation?
The answer will come to you almost immediately: Learn as much as you possibly can about the disease and what you’re up against, form a partnership with your doctor, and give yourself the best possible chance to remain healthy.
Back at Georgetown, Big John will have told you a thousand times: “If you’re not educated on a subject, or a challenge, then of course it will intimidate you. So it’s up to us to flip things around — to educate ourselves to make sure we put ourselves in a position to succeed.”
Once you remember that advice, and once you start doing the work to learn what you need to learn, the fear, it will wash away. You’ll make it your mission to know as much as your doctors do about the disease, and in the process you’ll gain confidence that you’ll be able to beat it. You’ll remain positive, and things will improve. Eventually, when scientists discover more about what caused you to get sick, you’ll learn you have a form of the disease that is genetically driven. You'll have the opportunity to spread awareness about AMKD (APOL1-mediated kidney disease) to others who have never heard of it, but who might be at risk of developing it too.
On the court, you’ll work your way all the way back and play a few more seasons for the Heat. It won’t be the same, of course. Your minutes will be down. The numbers won’t be what you’re used to. But you’ll be out there. Battling. You’ll even make another All-Star team.
Then, when things take a turn for the worse health-wise, another angel is going to appear in your life.
His name will be Jason Cooper. You might remember him, actually. He’s your cousin, a few years younger than you. The two of you used to play together as toddlers back in Chesapeake.
After that, though, you went your separate ways. You won’t have seen Jason for 25 years, but one day he’ll run into your dad while the two of them are visiting your grandma in the hospital. SportsCenter will be on the TV in her room, and the broadcaster will announce some breaking news….
“Alonzo Mourning has decided to retire from basketball in order to pursue a kidney transplant.”
Jason will be living in New York at the time and will only know you from watching games on TV, but he’ll tell Dad he wants to help out in any way he can.
Over the next few weeks, dozens of friends and family members — including your great friend and idol, Patrick Ewing — will be tested for a potential kidney donation match. The best and most viable candidate will be Cousin Jason. I mean, how about that?
In December 2003, you’ll undergo a successful transplant. It’ll be a miracle.
Someone you won’t have seen in a quarter century is going to come back into your life in an unexpected way, and then promptly save your life.
God is good, Alonzo. And don’t ever let anyone tell you angels aren’t real.
From there, everything is going to seem like icing on the cake. But, man, let me tell you, there’s going to be a lot of icing.
You’re actually going to make it back and continue your NBA career after the transplant. You’ll find your way to the Heat once again and, get this Alonzo….
You will become an NBA champion.
It’ll all come together for you and the team in 2006. You’ll see it as the ultimate blessing. The culmination of a career you can be proud of. A few years later, your number will be hanging from the rafters at the Heat’s home arena. Big John will be there to see it happen. Pat Ewing, too. Plus, what will seem like enough family members and friends to fill the entire place.
And the hits will just keep on coming, Zo. You’ll be enshrined in the basketball Hall of Fame. You’ll join the front office of the Heat, helping to mentor and develop young players, and to strengthen bonds between the team and the community. It’ll be like one dream after another after another.
You will feel loved. And grateful.
More than anything, though, you’ll feel blessed.
The Bible talks about developing strength through struggle. And I can tell you, Alonzo, over these next 40 years, you’re going to gather up a massive amount of strength and resiliency by facing down challenges. By the time you’re my age now, 53, you’ll have a whole different perspective on life — on what really, truly matters.
Most of all, you’ll be concerned with helping people from all walks of life understand that there is real power in facing a challenge head-on and doing everything in your power to learn about what you’re up against, and how to overcome the odds. Until you’re diagnosed, you won’t have any idea that tens of millions of people in the U.S. alone have kidney disease. Or that Black and brown people are at a far greater risk of kidney failure than the rest of the population. So, you did what you had to do. You educated yourself. And you know what? Education combined with focus and action can produce miracles. Not just for yourself, but for others who are in the fight of their life. You can be an angel to someone you haven’t even met. I truly believe that. Miracles do happen.
And it’s especially true when people have a strong support system around them — truly special individuals in their corner — like you’ve had over the years.
All those angels, in other words.
Ms. Threet (who I still, to this day, believe watches over me from heaven), Big John, Cousin Jason. Those are just three of many, for you. There’s Coach Spellman from JV, Indian River High School Coach Bill Lassiter, Boo, teachers who believed in you, doctors, nurses, and on and on. Mentors upon mentors. People who looked out for you when you needed some help or offered up a kind word when things looked bleak.
They’re all angels in my book, man. And they’re going to be there for you every step of the way.
So yeah, your angels … they’re comin’.
Now all you have to do is go out there and make them proud.