Zo just a 'bonus'

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:04 AM ET

Don't blink or you might miss the Alonzo Mourning era in Raptors history. And that's a pity. Mourning is on the marquee of this trade with New Jersey in name only. Healthy and willing -- and he is neither -- he would be welcomed with open arms. He is the antithesis of Vince Carter, tough as nails and twice as mean, a heart and soul player.

He is one of the most respected men in the NBA and not just because of his courageous -- some would say crazy -- comeback from a kidney transplant, but because he is a true character player. Unfortunately, with time running out on his career, he wants something the Raptors can't offer him: A championship.

Whether or not he can ever again be a frontline star is debatable, but it won't be because he doesn't want to be. And, given his personal history, who would bet against him, even at 34 and in depleted health?

His desire to be with a contender is at the centre of his dispute with New Jersey management all season and his deal to Toronto is unlikely to satisfy that desire.

And when Mourning wants something, there's really no alternative.

This is a person who, at the age of 11, with his parents on the verge of divorce and his world crumbling around him, testified in court that he didn't want to live with either his mom or his dad. Not because he didn't love them, but because he didn't want to choose.

So, he went to live in foster care. Voluntarily. At the age of 12. Sit and think about that for a minute.

A couple of years later, already well over six feet tall, he discovered basketball and pursued the game with dogged determination, even though he was clumsy and awkward and watched from the bench.

"I was teased because of my height and because I couldn't play," he said in an interview some years ago. "But that criticism became my driving force. My determined attitude toward becoming successful started there."

He would grow up to become one of the most fierce competitors in the NBA, an undersized centre who routinely pummeled larger men into submission on the court.

After helping the United States win a gold medal at the 2000 Olympic Games, he was diagnosed with a serious kidney disease that forced him to miss most of the 2000-01 season.

The condition became so bad last year that a transplant was necessary. When a distant family member turned out to be a match, the transplant was done a year ago tomorrow, on Dec. 19, 2003.

WOULDN'T LISTEN

Against the odds, the advice of his physicians and the will of his family, Mourning came back again this year, averaging 25 minutes a game through the first month of the season.

"My family, they love me, but they don't want me to do this because they care about me," he said in an interview last week. "They don't care about basketball anymore. They feel that: 'Hey, you've done enough, you don't have anything more to prove.' I realize that, too, but I'm not ready to stop yet.

"When you've played this game at the level I have and made the sacrifices I have to compete, and somebody tells you that you have to stop playing when you're not ready to -- that's the hardest thing for me. I wasn't ready yet, and I'm still not ready."

He is currently sitting out with a variety of ailments, none related to his kidney condition, more the result of being out of game shape.

"At one time I was accustomed to playing those games and playing 35 and 40 minutes and being okay with it," he said last week. "But my body, being away as long as it has, it has to get used to that. That's hard, especially without being able to rely on any painkillers, anti-inflammatories or what have you because I can't take those any more because they're a detriment to my kidney function."

Mourning's genetic disorder of the kidneys might have remained dormant for his entire life had he not used ant-inflammatories to mute the pain that an 82-game NBA season creates.

"We like the trade regardless what Mourning does,' Raptors general manager Rob Babcock said last night. "If he comes to play for us, it would be a tremendous bonus."

No kidding.

Diminished as he is, he'd still be the best centre in Raptors history.

Sadly, it isn't likely to happen.


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