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ALL PRESSURE, ALL THE TIME

2/27/2008

The day Al grew up is the day the linebacker died. Al turned 30 that day, dirty 30, and he'd planned to do what $105 million men always do-whatever he damn pleased-except it went nothing like that for Al, not that day, not that cold, wet, cathartic Miami day. The night before, he'd been antsy. The night before, he'd done a photo shoot with his wife, his tall, six-weeks-pregnant, 36-24-36 wife, and at 10:30 p.m., he'd told her he'd see her later at home. "Where you headed?" she asked. "To get my birthday present," Al said. "I'm hungry," she said. "So am I," he said. Al was craving his present, a present he'd ordered seven months before, a present only a rich man could give himself, a present that arrived in bubble wrap, a present he thought he deserved for reaching the big three-oh. Because he'd made it, damn it, he'd made it.
Twenty years before, as a 10-year-old, he went with his parents to court and told them he couldn't bear to see them fight, and that they couldn't have him anymore, no way. And 15 years before, as a 15-year-old, he had been taller than even his junior high principal and had worn clothes that fit only two-thirds of him, and he had been called "goofy" and "garbage" by classmates. And 10 years before, as a 20-year-old, he had fallen in love with his biceps during his first trip to a mirrored D.C. weight room, and none of Lou Carnesecca's players were going to push him around again. And two years before, as a 28-year-old, that Larry Johnson jerk had cheap-shotted him, and Al had swung back with an overhand right, and once again he was an angry, irresponsible player, costing his team a season.

But now he'd made it, damn it, now he'd made it to three-oh, and he pulled up to an auto dealership at 11:30 p.m., 30 minutes before his birthday, and he asked for his present, and they handed over the keys to the fastest car he'd ever damn seen. "So this is what an Aston Martin looks like," Al said, and he and his good friend Andre hopped in the olive-green convertible, and they drove into the Miami night, and Al had it up to 90 mph by the stroke of midnight. He smiled his crooked smile, and he brought it back to the dealer because he'd noticed an odor in the car, and the dealer said, "Well, that's because you still have the parking brake on." And Al howled with laughter, and he dropped Andre off, and Andre said, "Happy birthday, man," and then one other thing: "Why don't you ever wear your seat belt?" And Al said nothing, because what could he say, and he took off for his home in Coconut Grove, with the convertible top down. Crossing the Rickenbacker Causeway, he had it up to 120 mph-parking brake off. But as he drove alone, wind in his eyes, it dawned on him that if he ever wrecked this little car, this little explosive car, he'd be dead, dead in an instant, dead because the impact of the crash would go straight to him, only to him.

The next morning, still the morning of his birthday, he drove to practice, fast as hell, as it poured a heavy Miami rain. And after practice, someone told him the news, the news that would numb him, the news that his friend Derrick Thomas, the linebacker who'd recently been in a wicked car crash, was dead. Dead at 33. Hadn't-worn-his-seat-belt dead. Dead like Al's other friend who'd been in a wreck, Bobby Phills. And Al heard this, and drove his Aston Martin to his favorite diner, and he stared at the car through the diner window, and the thrill was gone. He thought about the seat belts, never been used, and he thought about his 3-year-old son, and he thought about his smart, witty, pregnant, voluptuous wife, and he said no, no way. He drove to the dealership, and he handed over the keys, and he gave back a car he'd waited seven months for, gave it back after 15 hours. And he told them to come get his Porsche, too, and then he went home on his 30th birthday and went to bed. Two hours he slept, and when his wife stepped softly into their master bedroom, she asked him where the fast little cars were. And Al told her his story, and he rolled over, and she knew her husband was all grown up then, and she cried while he couldn't see, cried in the dark.

So don't expect Alonzo Mourning to melt down this spring, not again, not during the playoffs, not when LJ or Geiger or someone else elbows him, on cue, in the kidney. It used to be a question of when, not if, Alonzo Mourning would lose his head, but he is no longer a man the Heat worry about. Their team is probably not athletic enough or healthy enough to win the title that eludes them, but at least their All-Star center comes in peace. "He's like Gandhi now on the court," says Andre Napier, a friend and business associate who helps organize Mourning's summer charity event. "People swing at him or trash-talk, and he just smiles. If he had a flower, he'd give it to them." He still owns the scowl, the Georgetown scowl he learned from Uncle Patrick, and he was the only fool playing defense in last month's All-Star Game, and he still runs to his own little angry corner of the world after each Miami loss. But he is now the man he wants to be, the man Fannie Threet raised him to be, the man she and only she calls "Al."

His journey has been a contentious one, for personal reasons, and that's why he has been one of the NBA's more despised players. In this most recent All-Star Game, he dunked on Rasheed Wallace and was approached immediately by the one man in the league with more muscle mass, Shaquille O'Neal. "Why do you have to be so mean?" O'Neal said. "Lighten up a little." "I ain't being mean," Mourning told him. "I'm just out here playing the game like I've played it all my life. You just got to get to know me better before you pass judgment." And both of them laughed, but it showed once again that an entire league has misjudged him. "With Alonzo, it's a case of people taking a sound bite out of his life and using it to define him," says John Thompson, his former Georgetown coach. "And the thing I resent is they think he's a thug. Alonzo was never a thug. He's got a degree. People just don't know him."

No, they don't know that he refuses alcohol during the season, or that he has memorized every referee's first name, or that the NBA wives just honored him for his tireless work with foster children, or that he has wept in Pat Riley's office, or that he giggled when his little son asked him, "Daddy, can you ever beat New York?" They do not know that his wife, Tracy Mourning, still has his original love letters, or that he calls two women "Mom" and two men "Pop" or that he's a Scrabble fanatic or that he played listlessly against the Knicks in a nationally televised game in February because his son was in the hospital that day with pneumonia. "It's true, players in this league haven't known me or liked me in the past," says Mourning. "Their perception of me was an edgy, mean guy who wanted to fight all the time, every time I hit the court. But it wasn't that way. "Of course, if I was on the outside looking in, I would've had the same perception. I had an I-want-to-get-back-at-you-all-the-time mentality. But I was just trying to prove myself, don't you see? Always had to prove myself. If you knew about my childhood, you'd know why. And that's why I have the scowl, I guess. "But I think I've arrived now. At 30. I think I have arrived. It took a while, but, hey, I'm here. You know?"

It was a red brick house in Chesapeake, Va., with four bedrooms and a chalkboard. He waltzed in there as an 11-year-old, shopping for a family, and he knew he was safe as soon as he met the lady with the grin. Her name was Fannie, Fannie Threet, a former English and math teacher who had seen 40-odd foster children walk into her house with the same exact traces of fear. She told him she'd love for him to stay, so he stayed, and when Alonzo Mourning says today he has led a "storybook life," he's referring first and foremost to her, the woman who taught him how to like himself. He calls her "Mom" and her husband "Pop," but there's also a set of parents he kicked to the side of the road, a set of parents who started him on his angry way 20 years ago. It's not that the first 10 years of his life were unbearable, because Alonzo Mourning Sr. and his wife, Julia, did their best not to argue in front of him. Their marriage may have been in decline, but they still took loving photographs of their son at a Chesapeake jungle gym and bought him Washington Redskins sheets and pillowcases, and made sure he got to see the original Star Wars. But his father was around less and less, and the arguing grew in increments, and, at age 10, Alonzo Mourning Jr. first learned the term divorce. He says he wanted to live with his mom and that he also wanted to live with his pop, and that he couldn't choose between them, so he chose neither.

But it is hardly that simple. He was mad, madder than they or he ever imagined, and those who know him say he wanted out to spite them, because he was stubborn, and because he wanted to say "up yours" to this divorce thing. They sat in a child custody court, and he testified he wanted to live in a foster home. "I had to go through the whole court system," Mourning remembers. "You're just sitting in court and telling the judge what you want, and they make the decision from there. It was disturbing. Very disturbing. I was confused, but I was kind of adamant on what I wanted. I knew I didn't want to show any type of favoritism toward my mother or father, and I made the decision, hey, I would rather leave, do this on my own ... I just wasn't happy with the situation. But it happened so long ago that I can't really picture the whole thing and don't really want to get into a lot of it. And my parents do not talk about it, even today. I just remember that I went in and let the courts decide my fate."

The judge placed him in a group home for a year-"My only memory is that I was with a lot of kids looking for answers," he says-but the court also promised to later find him foster parents. Several couples were interviewed before Fannie Threet stepped in, stepped in with her brick house and her chalkboard. The first time he confided in her, really confided in her, it had to do with his height. At 13, he was 6'4", and he had tried playing his favorite sport, football, to no avail. He would trip over his elongated feet trying to rush the passer, and he'd play in high tops, because he didn't own cleats, and he remembers children being cruel. He went home in tears to Fannie, who said, "Al, please sit down, and let's talk." She told him God had blessed him, that he should walk with his head high, work hard and expect wonderful things. The day he gave up football for hoops was one of those wonderful things. Anxious not to be ridiculed again, anxious to prove the divorce hadn't turned him into a big nothing, he worked night and day at basketball. This was where his work ethic started, this is why Pat Riley would later fall in unfettered love with him.

"I remember it being rainy, cold, miserable," says his foster brother, Bud Threet. "And he'd be out the door to play ball. Couldn't stop him." His coach at Indian River High in Chesapeake, Bill Lassiter, took it from there, took a fuming man-child and taught him the game. Lassiter was a disciple of John B. McLendon Jr., who was himself a disciple of James Naismith at Kansas. McLendon had pioneered small-college black basketball in the South, and Lassiter asked him to speak to his prize pupil. McLendon told Mourning, "You have to grow up fast, son. You are more than a high school athlete. You cannot hang out like the rest of the kids." But Mourning belonged to Fannie Threet, so there was no need to worry. He was one of 49 foster children she'd raised in that red brick house over the years, and after every practice, she made him sit by her chalkboard and do his homework. She never gave him a curfew, because she knew he would never cross her, and by the time he had graduated and enrolled at Georgetown, Bill Lassiter had yet to see Alonzo scowl. But the real world can be a bitch, and when Mourning tried out for the '88 Olympic team the summer after he left Fannie Threet, he was the next-to-last one cut. It devastated him. Thompson, the team's coach, had cut him because he didn't want him missing his freshman classes, but that's how the scowl began. "I got cut, and I had to prove myself-like junior high all over again," he says.

That's when a D.C. drug dealer named Rayful Edmond III began knocking on Mourning's door, and the freshman made the foolish, naive decision to befriend him. Edmond didn't want to sell Mourning any drugs; Edmond just wanted a sniff of the exalted Hoya experience. When his drug runners would get murdered, Edmond would bury them in Georgetown jerseys-that's how fanatical he was. Soon Thompson asked Edmond to leave his center alone, and he advised Mourning to walk away, too. Even after Mourning listened and obeyed, everyone still wrongly assumed he was one of Edmond's crew, a tainted soul or something. But he couldn't shut them up, not when he was called as a witness by the defense the next November in Edmond's court trial, the trial that sent Edmond to prison for life without parole. And so the scowl stayed, the same scowl his idol Patrick Ewing wore. He felt judged, and by the time he reached the Hornets, he still had the same anxieties Fannie Threet had tried to smooth-talk him out of. He was ornery, and particularly bitter that he'd been the second pick in the 1992 draft, a consolation prize behind the top pick, O'Neal. He yelled nasty words one day at a female reporter and fought Chicago's harmless Luc Longley and fumed at referees. "I used to lead the league in techs," he says. "I just had this huge chip on my shoulder; me against the world. It was just a stage I was going through. I remember I was on the bench injured and still got ejected. I look back, and I'm like, 'Did I do that?'"

Mourning was traded to Miami on the eve of the '95-96 season after a contract dispute, so the chip became Pat Riley's problem. But if Fannie Threet couldn't fix it, nobody could. The Bulls and their clown Dennis Rodman baited him during his first Miami playoff series, and he was a blundering fool, tossing elbows and forcing shots. "They got in my head," he says. "I'd pounded myself so much inside that I just broke down and cried after that series. In Pat Riley's office. Right in front of him. I just let it out, man. It was like I tried to do everything in my power for us to win, and I just broke down." But nobody knew those were the teenage tears coming out. They didn't know him, didn't know he was donating time and money to foster and group homes in Miami. They didn't know the reason he pranced around in designer suits was because he hadn't had any clothes that fit in high school. They didn't know he spent his off-seasons tirelessly working on his jump shot and his hook and his baseline drive. They didn't know that he had met his future wife, Tracy Wilson, at a high school tournament in her hometown of Las Vegas, or that he'd written her love letters for an entire summer. Or that she wrote back to say, "I'm going to Howard in the fall, where are you going?" Or that the moment he got to Georgetown he called every dorm at Howard, because he had to find her, just had to. No, all they saw was that maddening face. Grant Hill dunked on him once, and squeaky-clean Grant Hill actually stood over him, glaring. "I jumped up and kind of went back at him," Mourning says, "but Joe Dumars said, 'That's Grant Hill, man. You're not gonna fight Grant Hill, are you? Come on, man. Not Grant Hill.' That crap was funny."

Later, in the '97 Eastern Conference semifinals, he hit a three to eliminate the Knicks at the Garden and flexed his biceps, and the camera caught him shouting, "Yeah, mother-." This was the same Alonzo Mourning who'd just donated $50,000 worth of suits to a tall man whose house burned down, but no one in New York City knew. All they knew was that they'd just seen another profane Mourning display. "He let that one rip," said one league official. "You could hear him deep into the crowd. I thought, 'This isn't good. A lot of kids are around.'" Then came the fight, the defining '98 fight with Larry Johnson. He may have made $105 million, yet on the most important day of the season-the fifth game of a five-game series-he was useless, suspended. And the Heat had no chance. It was the longest summer of his life, as Florida talk show hosts blasted him, and he spoke with Fannie Threet and with Heat owner Mickey Arison, and even with his mom and pop-the real ones. He was humbled, and it was cathartic, and it was the beginning of the end of a temper. Most of all, he had realized that summer that he had a family to lean on. He and Tracy had just been married in the Caribbean, with an 80-year-old Fannie joined in the audience by his real parents. Fannie had always urged him to reconcile with his mother and father, and Alonzo Sr. began driving his motorcycle to see him, and Julia, a devout Jehovah's Witness, began cooking him meals. And he had a son of his own, Alonzo III, born in 1997, who looked just like him and said things like "You're the best daddy in the world." Zo nicknamed him Trey and put him on the phone with his tall friends, "Uncle Patrick" and "Uncle Dikembe."

When Mourning returned the next season, the lockout season, he called referees by their first names and played so well he was runner-up in the MVP voting. At 6'10'', 260 pounds, he's more a power forward, yet he scored 20 points a game and was Defensive Player of Year. "Imagine if I was 7'1''," he says. "I'd be the best player in this league." This season has been the delightful sequel. Mourning leads the league in blocks, scores more than 22 points a game and carries a team full of sore knees. Riley has said, "Zo has come into his own," and Dr. Jack Ramsay, Heat and ESPN analyst, says, "He used to barrel into the middle and force shots, but now he picks and chooses." And teammate P.J. Brown says, "I thought last year he was MVP, but he's even more phenomenal this year."

So the fight, the marriage, the son-all of it-conspired to make him Fannie Threet's Al again. "He's back to his true self," Lassiter says. "The real him is back. For a long time, he was trying to build something that was false, trying to prove himself. It took him longer than I thought, but he's himself now. He doesn't have nothing to prove now." Of course, he still lives in a wicked world, and his critics still say he disappears in the fourth quarter, and some teammates are convinced that he and Riley are so tight, he can get any of them traded. "What the hell?" he says. "I'm the highest paid player on the team. Of course, Riley is going to come and ask me questions about what's going on with the team. But there's also more pressure on me, more than they'll ever know. "All I care about is winning. Listen, man, I don't drink at all during the season. At all! Nothing. I don't have beers with my dinner. But I make that sacrifice, so I can stay healthy, so I can deal with Riley's long-ass practices." So, no, he doesn't drink. But he drives, loves to drive. He has always favored those fast, little rocket cars, and that's why he adored his Porsche. And that's why he ordered the Aston Martin seven months ago, and that's why he rushed to pick it up that night, because he wasn't ready to put away all of his childish things. But he did put it away, on the day the linebacker died. His wife cried, and the next day she told one woman all about it: the wife of Bobby Phills. And on All-Star Saturday night, just last month, Al got a tap on the shoulder, a small, unobtrusive tap. It was Mrs. Bobby Phills, and all she said was "Thank you."