Backup center gets warm welcome

Updated: March 4, 2005, 11:24 PM ET
Associated Press

MIAMI -- Alonzo Mourning waved goodbye to Miami two summers ago, and the fans still cheered.

The former franchise centerpiece returned Friday night when the Heat hosted Sacramento, and the crowd cheered for him again -- perhaps louder than ever.

Mourning, still a fan favorite in Miami, made his return in a crisp new home uniform with 3:37 remaining in the fourth quarter, to the delight of a sellout crowd. He signed with the Heat earlier this week, reuniting with the franchise he'd spent eight previous years with -- a stay interrupted twice by kidney disease.

Mourning waved to the crowd, raising one finger and then a fist in the air as a 60-second standing ovation rained down. It only got louder when Mourning blocked a shot 19 seconds into his appearance, then grabbed a rebound.

And when he scored his first points -- a pair of free throws with 2:22 left -- the crowd let loose with another loud cheer. He finished with four points and four rebounds in Miami's 104-83 win over Sacramento.

He acknowledged he felt some nervous energy before the game, but also said he was trying to not over-magnify his long-awaited homecoming.

"I just look at it as another game, man," Mourning said before the game. "I'm back home again."

He may have wanted to play it cool, but the broad smile on his face as he trotted out for pregame warmups gave him away. Mourning looked around the mostly empty arena 18 minutes before tip-off, grinned as he hopped on the center stripe a few times, then joined the layup lines.

Early in the fourth quarter, fans began chanting "We want Zo!" -- with even some on the Heat bench pumping their fists in rhythm with the crowd. After several more chants, fans finally got their wish: During a timeout, Heat coach Stan Van Gundy tapped Mourning's chest and sent him in for Shaquille O'Neal.

Mourning has career averages of 19.8 points and 9.6 rebounds, and was once the player whom the Heat built their championship hopes around. He helped Miami to four 50-win seasons in his first stint with the Heat, but the team only advanced as far as the Eastern Conference finals once.

Now he's back in a reserve role, backing up O'Neal. And he's apparently fine with that.

"Right now, most of my focus is on trying to physically get better so that I can continue to contribute, so the team continues to win," Mourning said. "That's basically it. Everything else is just relative. The priority is winning, obviously staying healthy, and doing what I have to do to contribute to the team."

Mourning's last home game in Miami colors was April 16, 2002, when he scored a team-best 25 points in an 88-81 loss to the Charlotte Hornets. He then missed the entire 2002-03 season because of his kidney problems.

He last appeared on the court in Miami on July 13, 2003, participating in his annual charity game that was held three days before he signed with the New Jersey Nets. Mourning was traded earlier this season to Toronto, never reported there, accepted a buyout, became a free agent and ultimately signed with Miami.

"Hearing the crowd ... makes a world of difference," Mourning said.

Copyright 2005 by The Associated Press