SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Alonzo Mourning first thanked all of the usual people when he was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame: His coaches, his teachers, and the foster mother who raised him.
Then he turned to those who made it possible for his unique journey to the sport’s highest honor.
With one of the doctors who performed his kidney transplant in attendance, the former Georgetown and Miami Heat star discussed the disease that threatened his life and almost ended his career. He also thanked out his cousin-turned-kidney donor, Jason Cooper.
“There was such purpose to my life at that point and I never doubted – no matter how long the odds – that it was possible,” Mourning said during Friday night’s induction ceremony. “I just thought, ‘This is much bigger than me.’ I had a goal set to win a championship that was denied when I got kidney disease.”
Mourning returned to win the 2006 NBA title with the Heat and complete a career that led him to the Springfield shrine. He was inducted in a class that also included former NBA commissioner David Stern, NCAA championship-winning coaches Nolan Richardson and Gary Williams and six-time NBA All-Star Mitch Richmond.
The women’s team from Immaculata College was also honored, along with Lithuania star Sarunas Marciulionis. Former Indiana Pacers coach Bob “Slick” Leonard, the late Nat “Sweetwater” Clifton of the New York Knicks and the late Guy Rodgers of Temple rounded out the class.
Stern was honored for his three decades of leadership that transformed the league from struggling teams and tape-delayed finals to an international juggernaut. His introductory video included praise from NBA stars like Michael Jordan, Bill Russell and Magic Johnson but also from Nelson Mandela.
“Everything we do is always about the game,” Stern said, asking the entire crowd to stand so he could thank the former players, fans and family members who made the league’s success possible. “The reason I’m here is because of thousands of people over the years who have done so much.”
Stern had five current Hall of Famers welcome him into the Hall, from Russell, the former Celtics star, to former deputy commissioner Russ Granik – a group that represented his wide-ranging influence as he rose from working at his father’s deli to the pinnacle of the sport.
“Under his leadership, the NBA rose to terrific heights, on and off the court,” Richmond said in his acceptance speech.
Stern’s induction capped a festive night at Symphony Hall in downtown Springfield, across the highway from the museum that commemorates the city’s claim as the sport’s birthplace.
Williams, who led Maryland to 11 consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and the 2002 title, said enshrinement in the hall was “as big a thrill as you can get as a coach.” Then came Arkansas’ Richardson, who celebrated his induction with a revival-style speech peppered with swipes at referees and jokes about God and the devil playing basketball.
Richardson recounted a playing career in which he went from 21 points per game to 14 and belatedly realized it was more important to win. Thanking his teachers and coaches and family, he said, “You have to have a team to reach a dream.”
“This isn’t talking about a national championship team,” he said. “This is about the team that helped raise Nolan Sam Richardson Jr.”
Leonard, the winningest coach in ABA history, followed with a contrasting style, accenting his quiet tone with a Southern drawl and guessing that he was one of the oldest inductees in the Hall’s history.
“For me, it took a while,” Leonard. 82, said, “but I’m going out in style.”