MIAMI — Alonzo Mourning will carry a part of Jason Cooper into the Basketball Hall of Fame on Friday, when the former Miami Heat center is inducted in Springfield, Mass.
That will make it more than a basketball story.
But from a storyteller’s perspective, what will happen Aug. 8, 2014 is as much about Jan. 20, 2009 and Dec. 19, 2003.
Dec. 19, 2003 is when Mourning received the life-saving kidney transplant made possible by the selflessness of his cousin. Just over three years later, Mourning would be hoisting the Larry O’Brien Trophy, as NBA champion.
Jan. 20, 2009 is when my wife, Sheri Winderman, donated a kidney to her father, Irwin Aronowitz, whose quality of life improved dramatically from that very moment, a champion to Jake Winderman and his two other grandchildren.
It is why this coming Friday will resonate in South Florida beyond the Mourning home. To witness the possibilities of transplantation makes Alonzo Mourning’s induction more about life, renewal, compassion, than points, rebounds, blocked shots.
At Mourning’s side Friday at Springfield Symphony Hall will be Pat Riley and John Thompson, his formal presenters. The two men — Thompson at Georgetown, Riley these past two decades with the Heat — changed his life.
Jason Cooper saved it.
Had there not been a championship with the Heat in 2006, it is possible there would not have been Springfield, with Mourning’s career cut short by a knee injury. Yet the transplant was a primary reason Mourning pushed to return.
“After my transplant, I wanted to have an impact on other people’s lives and provide encouragement and hope,” Mourning says during a reflective moment in a lounge at AmericanAirlines Arena.
Mourning’s transplant came close to the midpoint of the 2003-04 season. My wife’s donation came during the midpoint of the 2008-09 season, between a Heat victory in Oklahoma City and Heat home loss to Boston. Mourning made it to the court by the start of the following season; my wife was back home within days.
“Twenty, 30 years ago technology wasn’t as advanced as it is now,” Mourning said. “The surgery was more invasive. And now, the donor, there’s this very small incision by the navel, there’s laparoscopic incisions that’s made and the kidney is removed through these little holes and then you’re able to administer the kidney. The turnaround for both the donor and the [recipient] is three, four, five days. So I’m very, very fortunate from that perspective.”
Almost immediately my father-in-law’s health dramatically improved. Mourning’s revival was such that by the midpoint of the following season he was back with the Heat, playing in the Eastern Conference finals. A year later, there was the franchise’s first championship celebration.
“Now,” Mourning said, “when people hear ‘kidney disease’ or hear this particular kidney disease, or hear anything about transplantation or what have you, doctors use me as an example.”
Mourning is appreciative that his means afforded him the best possible care, that his athletic background gave him the best fighting chance.
“One day,” he said optimistically, “we’re going to get to the point where you only have to take one pill [a day], and then you’re done for the rest of your life. That’s how rapidly technology is advancing.”
Recently, Cooper visited with the Mournings, two men bonded by both a shared kidney and Cooper’s newborn daughter.
“I thank him quite often,” Mourning said.
Friday night, basketball gets to thank Alonzo Mourning.
But this is about more than blocking five shots in the deciding game of the 2006 NBA Finals, or Irwin Aronowitz shooting a competitive round at Rolling Greens Golf Club in Newton, N.J.
“I still get letters. I still get emails. I hear from people,” Mourning said. “I try to talk to people and comfort them and help them get through those situations, because they feel as though, ‘Hey, if you can get back on the court and play the game of basketball at that particular level, then I can do it, too.’”