Alonzo Mourning towered over the podium at the front of the conference room on the Georgetown campus on a Friday night in November. The NBA all-star and Hoya great, sharply dressed as usual in a gray pinstriped suit and a chocolate fedora, had returned to his alma mater to promote his new book, “Resilience: Faith, Focus and Triumph.”
“It means a lot to me that I still have the support,” Mourning said as he gazed out on the standing-room-only crowd.
Mourning spoke freely with no prepared notes for nearly 20 minutes. He talked about his reasons for writing a memoir, which he called a “life” not a sports book.
“I wrote the book to help and encourage people who are dealing with obstacles in life,” he said.
Mourning’s own obstacles are well known. At the height of his NBA career, not long after winning an Olympic gold medal in Sydney, he was struck down by kidney disease. He eventually underwent a transplant and returned to his NBA career. Half the proceeds from the book are going toward kidney research and to help those who can’t afford their medicines.
After signing books and memorabilia – including shoes and basketballs – and posing for pictures with the students, Mourning sat down to talk about the faith part of “Resilience: Faith, Focus and Triumph.”
On one of the first pages of the book, there is a Bible verse, Timothy 6:17-19. Why that verse? And what does it mean to you?
I think that the overall scriptures themselves pretty much are the blueprint to living. I think they are. I think Christ was put here on this earth — Christ is basically God in flesh and form — to teach us how to live. The scripture says that Christ was put here to serve and not to be served. There were so many other scriptures I could have chosen, but that one right there kind of forms up the message I’m trying to send through the book. Don’t put all your life and your focus into wealth and material things. Live your life with a purpose, and use the blessings that you have here on this earth. You know just waking up every morning is a blessing, and realize the blessing that you have and share that to improve the world.
When Christ walked the face of this earth, he did nothing but help people. That’s it. That’s all he did. He taught, he raised people from the dead, healed the sick. That’s all that he did. So I can’t think of any other teacher that’s worthy of praise than him. I think it’s up to us to follow those particular ways so we can live in a better world. I think this book comes out at the right time because we’ve got the world in turmoil right now. I really feel that the only way for us to get through these particular tough times, we need each other. We need the influence of somebody or something, and I think my story will influence people to think differently, to do differently, to live differently. That’s what inspired me to write it.
In your acknowledgements, you thank your foster mother Fannie Threet for teaching you so much about spirituality. What did she teach you? And growing up, how spiritual were you?
Let me tell you what: I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I was running around preaching the gospel. But I knew that my life was faith-based. I knew that through Ms. Threet’s overall teaching, she stressed the importance of understanding God has created the direction and purpose in your life and to give him praise by going to church. She’s a very spiritual person. That influence resonated with me. My mom took me to church when I was younger. Ms. Threet just put more emphasis on it. It’s always been a part of my life.
I’m not going to sit here and tell you I’ve lived this perfect life. I try my best, but I do know that each and every one of us are here based on the Creator. He created each and every one of us, as He said in the Bible, in his likeness, that we have the ability to overcome the adversities and challenges in our lives. God continues to speak to us and a lot of us don’t listen. He continues to speak to us. It’s just a matter of us hearing. God speaks to us through experiences. I think he speaks to us through dreams. I think he continues to communicate with us, but a lot of us don’t listen. Going through my particular adversity, my fight with kidney disease, that was God’s way of speaking to me. It truly was. He got my attention real quick. He really did, then I realized there was more than me being here to just run up and down the court playing basketball.
A lot of people go through a crisis and they turn away from God. Why did you turn toward him?
Because I knew that there was a message in it. I knew that. For me to be on such a high in my life, for me to just be right there, for this to happen, I knew that I had to get something out of it. Things in life just don’t happen coincidentally. There was something I was supposed to learn from this, something I was supposed to get out of this. God showed me some direction. Let me know exactly, evidently, basketball was not what You wanted me to do right now. Let me know what You want me to do. He eventually showed me exactly what He wanted. I think more good has come out of this. It totally overshadows the challenges and the discomfort and the quote, unquote, bad things that people perceive. You had to have a transplant. Oh, that’s terrible. That’s bad. That’s terrible. No, I see it as a blessing. I truly do.
There is this theme throughout the book that God has a plan. Have you always thought that God had a plan for your life?
Look at it this way: regardless of what we plan to do, it really doesn’t mean anything, to tell you the truth. It’s not what we plan to do. I think all of what we’re living right now is God’s plan. It’s just reminding people of, OK, you live life the right way, you do things the right way, you’re going to be affected by adversity and challenges in your life, this is how you deal with them. This is how you approach them using faith as the guiding light and direction for getting through those things. I place a point of emphasis on that. Nobody is going to be perfect. He expects all of us to make mistakes. All of us are born into sin. But recovering from the mistakes, that’s key.
In the book, there seemed to be a turning point with your faith after your transplant. Pastor Willie Alfonso comes to visit you in the hospital. What did he say to you?
Talk about all the angels in the book. I look at Pastor Willie, he used to come and approach me during games, and I was so focused on the game that I kept blocking him out. I looked at him as, OK, I talked to God every night. I prayed. I don’t need you here, telling me to go to chapel before the game. No offense to him. He didn’t stop coming to speak to me. He tells his story in the book.
It’s an amazing story.
So at that particular moment, at probably my most vulnerable, he came [to see him in the hospital]. It was the one time when I really embraced him. I truly embraced him. I said, ‘Pastor, I want to hear what you’ve got to say.’ He just helped me understand the importance of, it’s not a matter of you worrying about what God thinks about you, mistakes you’ve made and all, that He’s going to accept you regardless of what you’ve gone through or the things that you do. He just wants you to know that He’s here with you, regardless of what this tough time is. He wants you to listen to him. Through his overall communication with me, I understood that, hey, I have a greater purpose here than just basketball.
[Pastor Willie Alfonso] came at a time in my life when I needed some fertilizer. I think he reminded me of the fact that I wasn’t doing enough, from the perspective of showing my appreciation, other than praying, going to church, living it, practicing it.
How is your faith different now before the transplant?
I think it’s a lot stronger. I feel like I appreciate life so much more than I did, so much more. It occurred to me to give life to others, just through my actions. I want to give life to others. I want to give the direction. That’s a part of it all, that goes hand-in-hand. I think the Bible speaks of the fact that we’re put on this earth to make things better. I think if everybody had that mentality we wouldn’t have the issues that we’re dealing with right now. I’m hoping that this message comes loud and clear.