In his 16-year NBA career, Alonzo Mourning won a championship, made the All-Star team seven times, and earned Defensive Player of the Year honors twice. Despite all that, Mourning still can relive the most embarrassing moment of his playing career. It was more than 20 years ago, when he was playing for Georgetown University. After practice in November of 1989, legendary coach John Thompson posed a question to his team: What event went on in the world today?
Like the rest of his teammates - athletes, but also students at one of the country’s best universities - Mourning was dumfounded. He had no idea that a global superpower was crumbling, that an oppressed people were uprising and that finally, on that day, anti-Soviet protesters took a sledgehammer to the Berlin Wall.
“Coach Thompson looked at us with disgust and said 'you ought to be ashamed of yourselves,'” Mourning vividly remembers.
Speaking after a Dove Men+Care-sponsored event at SXSW, Mourning recalled this was the defining experience of time at Georgetown. Moments like these shape the college game, where a young man is distanced from his outsized presence as a high school phenomenon but not yet swept up by the plush lifestyle of the professional game. A player can be chastised for missing a newspaper headline - and he’ll appreciate the lesson.
Perhaps at no other time in sports is the opportunity to play and learn treated more preciously than during the drama of March Madness. It is a concentrated and accelerated maturation process for men who are at heart still mostly boys. Mourning spent four years at Georgetown, is currently on the university’s Board of Directors and is grieving vicariously through his son Trey, a freshman player at the school, which got bounced from the tournament last weekend by Utah.
We spoke to Mourning about the dominance of Kentucky, why NCAA players deserve a stipend and the importance of prioritizing education over draft status.
The second weekend of the NCAA Tournament is here. What are your initial thoughts?
This is some of the most exciting basketball you want to see. You have really young kids that have gotten to this point, and they're competing at a very high level, so you see some of the best and most desperate basketball. And because of improvements in technology, social networking, and broadcasting, March Madness is even more exciting to watch. You can watch several different games at a time. It's pretty amazing.
What team do you feel certain will win it all?
I mean, it looks like Kentucky. But anything can happen. I thought one year we had a chance to win it, but we ended up losing to Duke in the Elite Eight. And then they ended up losing to Seton Hall, who we beat three times. Seton Hall.
Who do you think has a shot at knocking Kentucky off?
I'm not sure. I don't know. But you've got to play a good game. You've got to play a perfect game. Like the perfect game in 1985 Villanova played against Georgetown, where they shot over 70-some percent. That's still an NCAA record.
I like that you still hold a grudge about that.
Oh, I do.
Your son is a freshman on the Georgetown team. You're seeing him go through the process of college basketball now. I imagine it's changed a lot since you were a college player.
Tremendously. The main thing is that the best players are leaving to go to the pros. And another is that there's so much more focus on football. Football has monopolized some of the best schools just to create these conferences. And by moving schools around to shape these conferences, they’ve disrupted these powerhouse basketball leagues. They've broken up just for the purpose of generating revenue through football.
It sounds like you think college basketball may not be changing for the better. Perhaps things need to change?
Well, I really feel like the games are just as competitive, you know? It's fun to watch Kentucky. Obviously Calipari has done a good job with recruiting and bringing these kids together. And Duke has always been a team of substance; Carolina, too. The list goes on. And then you have, you know, your smaller schools. The tournament provides an opportunity for these smaller-conference schools to come in and really make a name for themselves.
Is there something your son is going through and experiencing, as a college basketball player today, that maybe you're a little jealous of, or that you think he's missing out on?
Well, you know, I don't think its much different an experience, other than the fact that technology has changed and made games are a little bit more magnified. The tournament as a whole is a fishbowl - there are so many different media outlets covering far much more than was being covered in the '90s. That’s the big difference.
How do you think this media scrutiny would have affected your college days?
I like to think it would have enhanced it even more. The media has grown so much. Everybody is relevant, everybody has an opinion. And that means there’s more interest sparked.
You brought up how much more popular, and really how much more lucrative, the sport is becoming. Should be any financial change to the NCAA? Should players get a bigger piece of the pie?
The NCAA needs to take into consideration that possibility and protect their product - the player. There are millions and millions of dollars being generated and that wouldn’t be made if it wasn’t for the players. And a lot of these kids know they have future opportunities and leave to protect themselves from losing out on opportunities if they do get hurt.
And you're in an interesting position to speak, because you also are involved with the NBA. Do you think that the rules of eligibility should change as well?
I do. I stayed four years, and it worked out for me. And I think the NBA and the NCAA need to come together and figure out what's going to work best for that athlete. I feel that there's a lot that can be done. The athlete is the priority— and you have to prepare them for the next level. Whether there are stipends in place or what have you, I think we need to entertain a lot of different opportunities that's going to benefit the player.
In light of all sorts of academic scandals that have come out of Syracuse and UNC, when you hear stories about that, do you feel compelled to take a side on that?
I’m biased, man. I'm a little biased. I'm on the Board of Trustees at Georgetown University. I understand the importance of a world-class education. I understand the importance of that, and that's the antidote for poverty. It really is. And I think we need to focus on educating the kids because basketball is temporary. One day the ball's going to stop bouncing.
Photos by Photo: Neilson Barnard / WireImage