As a fan of numerous sports who’s gone to an uncountable number of games in my 45 years on this planet I’ve met quite a few athletes. I’ve gotten autographs, spoken with some of them at batting practices, high-fived a few during games as well as before and after them, and even rode down in an elevator once in New York City with John Starks; speaking with him for a few minutes in the lobby before he had to go.
I’ve purchased sandwiches at a Deli across the street from where I worked in Staten Island John Franco frequents when I lived there, and said hello numerous times while he made his purchases, letting him know while I hated the Mets (being a Florida Marlins fan), I always respected his pitching.
I’ve also, as I recounted in my piece The Day I Caught a Catfish in an Ice Cream Shop, had a wonderful encounter with the late James Augustus “Catfish” Hunter as a child, which will always be one of the biggest thrills of my life as a sports fan.
However, there are a number of sports stars and athletes I’ve never met in my life that I’d like to eventually encounter someday. Dan Marino is obviously one of them, having been one of the greatest sports stars of any team I’ve rooted for in my life.
The inimitable Josh Beckett, who led my beloved Florida Marlins to a World Series Championship against the vaunted and hated New York Yankees in 2003 as I sat in the stands watching at Yankee Stadium for Game 6, is obviously another.
I wouldn’t mind chatting with Rob Niedermayer, Scott Mellanby, or John Vanbiesbrouck of the 1996 Florida Panthers team that shockingly went all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals before falling to the Colorado Avalanche and asking them what it was like during that magical “season of the rat.”
I also wouldn’t mind finally getting to meet Dwyane Wade and talking to him about the 2006 NBA Finals and the Miami Heat in general.
However, if I had one choice to meet one athlete and have a lengthy discussion with him, it would be Alonzo Mourning. Wade may be my favorite Heat player now, Marino is a legend in my mind, Beckett seems a likable guy I’d like to have a beer with, and Niedermayer, Mellanby, and Vanbiesbrouck would be great to hang out with, but ‘Zo was the heart and soul of the many Miami Heat teams I lived and died with in the ’90s.
There is no other athlete I anguished with over their losses in the postseason as much as Mourning; not even Marino. When he was diagnosed with kidney problems, I was crushed, not only as a fan who saw the hopes of his team being dashed, but as a human who saw one of his heroes being vanquished by life’s cruelties.
When he returned after his kidney transplant, I was cautiously optimistic about his chances of regaining his career, and wished him all the best. When fortune smiled on me and every other Heat fan and saw him return to the fold in Miami, I was beyond ecstatic. Here again was the warrior soul who would give everything he had every night to fight for each and every win he could get for the team.
When he finally got his one and only title ring with the Heat in 2006 and sat up on the podium after the game at the news conference, I was so happy for him I actually cried.
Alonzo Mourning isn’t just a great basketball player I’ve enjoyed watching over the years and who I firmly believe deserves to one day be enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame, he’s one of the best men I’ve never met. His charity work in the Miami community is legendary, and anyone who’s watched him throughout the years knows he’s as genuine as they come.
In today’s world where athletes seldom live up to the pedestals we put them on, Mourning is that rare exception. He’s an intelligent, honest, caring, decent human being who also happens to be one of the greatest athletes this world has ever seen. I’d dearly love to hold a conversation with such a man.
Here’s hoping I do one day.