Few high school basketball phenoms have wrung more from their athletic ability than Alonzo Mourning, who was chosen second overall in the 1992 NBA draft following a standout career at Georgetown, signed the league’s first $100 million contract, helped the Miami Heat win the 2006 NBA championship and earned seven NBA all-star honors in a 16-year pro career.
But none of it would have been possible, Mourning said in a recent interview, had he not spent four years in college developing his intellect along with his on-court skills.
As the April 27 deadline looms for declaring early for June’s NBA draft, Mourning said he feels it’s incumbent upon parents and coaches to ensure that the current crop of under-age phenoms think long-term rather than jump early for the millions or because of an understandable sense of urgency, in many cases, to become their family’s breadwinner.
"None of that means anything if, once their career is over with, they don’t have anything to show for it. None of that means anything," said Mourning, 44, vice president of player programs and development for the Miami Heat. "The benefit of them staying in school and developing a stronger intellect and helping them make better decisions will help enhance the accomplishments of that next level, so that they can take care of their families for years and years to come.
"I know for a fact that four years of college - my development in school - was the biggest thing that ever happened in my life. Those four years were the most exciting four years of my life."
Mourning shared his view during an interview in Dallas, where he was announced as a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame’s 2014 class, along with former Maryland Coach Gary Williams and eight others. Recounting the debt he owed to former Georgetown Coach John Thompson Jr. and former Miami Heat Coach Pat Riley, Mourning said he hoped both men would introduce him during the Aug. 8 induction ceremony in Springfield, Mass.
It was while working on his 2008 autobiography, "Resilience," that Mourning started reflecting on where he would be without the intellectual awakening of college - something he confessed he gave no thought to when he committed to Georgetown, thinking only of basketball.
A three-time all-American, he averaged 21.3 points and 10.7 rebounds as a senior and was picked second only to Shaquille O’Neal in the 1992 NBA draft, following graduation.
After having a rare kidney disease diagnosed, Mourning underwent a transplant in 2003. He later returned to the NBA and competed until his 2009 retirement.
"As soon as we lace ‘em up, a clock starts ticking, and we don’t know when that clock is going to stop," Mourning said, musing on the unpredictability of a pro career.
Returning to the theme of education, he said: "We live in a world right now where if you can’t communicate, you can’t survive. It’s not about how much money you have. It’s: Can you communicate? So reading, writing, speaking - those particular things are extremely important.
"Is it important for kids to stay in school longer? Yes. It’s extremely important. Is it their constitutional right for them to work at the age of 18? Yes, it is. We can’t stop them from working at the age of 18. But there is a certain developmental process that I feel that the coaches and the parents are responsible for. You can’t expect the kid to figure it out for themselves."
Reared in a foster home, Mourning said he’s acutely aware of the value of an athletic scholarship at universities such as Georgetown, where he serves on the Board of Directors. He’s also acutely aware that those scholarships don’t meet athletes’ basic needs, and he voiced empathy for players who’ve been punished for selling their jerseys to get spending money to do laundry or take a girlfriend on a date.
"It’s outrageous," he said.
To that end, Mourning is closely following the efforts of Northwestern football players to form a union.
Given the millions football and men’s basketball players generate for their universities, which has increased exponentially in the 22 years since his college era, Mourning believes the NCAA should do two things as soon as possible: Increase the value of a scholarship and provide long-term disability insurance.
"These kids, by staying in school, they’re risking something," Mourning said. "They’re making millions of dollars for us."
And if the NCAA fails to act, leaving the courts to impose a solution, he worries about the result, predicting the courts will be far more sympathetic to athletes than to universities, given the billions college athletes earn for their schools.
"If these kids go forward with this unionization, it could get really messy," Mourning said. "So why doesn’t ⅛the NCAA⅜ step up before it gets to that point? You don’t know what the courts are going to do."
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