A fiery Mourning comes back to Heat

Sitting for 5 months with kidney illness, center makes return

March 28, 2001|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

MIAMI - More than five months after his coach said he would not play this season because of a career-threatening kidney ailment, an emotional Alonzo Mourning returned to an NBA court last night.

Before a standing ovation at the AmericanAirlines Arena, the Heat's All-Star center checked in against the Raptors with 3:43 left in the first quarter. He finished with nine points, six rebounds and an assist in 19 minutes, but Toronto defeated Miami, 101-92.

If Mourning's stunning decision yesterday dramatically changed the landscape of the Eastern Conference playoff race, it also raised questions about his long-term health. "Am I scared?" Mourning said during a television interview before the game. "I'm extremely scared. I don't know what the future is going to bring. At the same time, I feel there is an opportunity there for us."

With coach Pat Riley and his agent, David Falk, flanking him, Mourning said at a news conference that he had decided to play after doctors told him that his status might not change for a year.

During a routine training-camp physical in October after returning from the Sydney Olympics, doctors discovered he had focal glomerulosclerosis, an illness that causes scarring of the kidney and could eventually require dialysis or a transplant.

Mourning, 31, has been taking up to a dozen pills a day for his kidneys and to control his blood pressure and cholesterol levels. He is also following a strict, low-sodium diet. It is a regimen that will continue for months.

While Falk said the disease was in remission, he also said that Mourning's blood levels would be monitored on a daily basis. As inspirational as the comeback seemed, there was no guarantee that Mourning would be in uniform for the remainder of the regular season or the playoffs.

Speaking to him in recent days, Dr. Gerald B. Appel of Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center in New York, part of the team of nephrologists treating Mourning, tried to reassure his patient. But the decision was left with Mourning.

"I don't have a crystal ball," Appel said yesterday, "but I don't think it will hurt him to play."

If Mourning, a five-time All-Star who missed 69 games, remains healthy, he would give Miami a huge advantage in a conference short of bona fide big men. Going into the Toronto game, Miami was 42-27 with 13 games left in the regular season. Tied for second with the New York Knicks in the Atlantic Division, the Heat has a better-than-decent shot of securing the third playoff seed in the East. The No. 3 seed would enable Miami to escape a potential matchup with the conference-leading Philadelphia 76ers until perhaps the Eastern Conference finals.

Yesterday, at about 3:30 p.m., news of Mourning's decision began to circulate. Riley, who had maintained for much of the season that Mourning would not return this season, raised the possibility of a comeback earlier this month when he announced that he would keep a spot on the playoff roster open for him.

According to a Heat official, Mourning had been working out with the team for the past six weeks, his practices growing more strenuous the past 10 days. But the decision to play in the regular season became one of the league's best-kept secrets. Many in the organization had no idea he would return until last night.

Sean Elliott, the San Antonio Spurs swingman who returned to action last season after undergoing a kidney transplant, counseled Mourning the past few months about a possible return. Said Elliott, "In my situation, the doctors would look at my numbers and ask me how I feel. `Are you good enough to play?' I would say, `Yes.' If he feels well enough to play, then it's up to him. That's what I told him."

Aside from the spectacle of an emotional return was the issue of Mourning's health. While Mourning looked confident and ready to play, he also acknowledged trepidation.

Focal glomerulosclerosis is a relatively rare disease and attacks the tiny filters in the kidney that remove waste from the blood, doctors say. Symptoms can include swelling in the legs, as in Mourning's case, high rates of protein in the urine and high cholesterol.

"Every time I step out on the court, I'm afraid, I'm scared," Mourning said. "The reason I'm scared is because the doctors really haven't given me any solid answers on my future."

The South Florida Sun-Sentinel and the Associated Press contributed to this article.

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