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Let’s Remember Some Raptors: The never-was Toronto career of Alonzo Mourning

Thanks to the Vince Carter trade, the Raptors got the second biggest player in the deal, the well-known former All-Star Alonzo Mourning. The catch? He didn’t want to come to Toronto.

Toronto Raptors v Miami Heat Photo by Marc Serota/NBAE via Getty Images

We here at Let’s Remember Some Raptors, comprised of a subset of HQ staffers who dare brave the wilds of Toronto’s basketball history, have a desire to maintain perspective. In our opinion, understanding the extreme highs of, say, winning a championhip is best undertaken by firmly grasping the attendant extreme lows. Together, we remember the journey and, of course, the satisfying final destination.

In this, the Raptors — and the study herein — are not unique. There are other sports teams with histories filled with both abject despair and ultimate glory. But, as befits a Raptors site, we happen to believe Toronto’s basketball team owns a very specific story, one that confounds and rewards in equal measure — and one that stands alone. And, as with any document of time, there are various chapters to that story, epochs and eras defined by what happened within, and the pivot points along the way.

For the majority of the Raptors’ existence, approximately 15 of their 25 total years, Toronto was defined by Vince Carter. He became one of the most popular players in the league, and then carried on — until literally this year — as the ultimate NBA journeyman, and talisman. Carter launched basketball in Canada, and when he departed Toronto on less-than-good terms, he had a hand in almost destroying it. But we’re not here to talk about Carter once again.

We’re here to gain some perspective on another player, a man who never donned a Raptors jersey at all, despite being the chief Toronto-bound player in the Vince Carter trade. Yes, it’s time to remember Alonzo Mourning, deemed by this very site: the worst Raptor ever.

His Raptors Run

On December 17, 2004, the Nets traded Mourning to the Raptors, along with Aaron and Eric Williams and a pair of first round picks (one of which becoming future Raptor Joey Graham) for Carter. Obviously, this trade was a huge win for then-New Jersey Nets. They got a legit superstar player, one of the most popular in the league (even after considering Vince’s weird injury-plagued final run in Toronto) for what amounted to a cadre of veteran reserves.

Both Williamses did play for Toronto, however briefly, before being traded elsewhere — and Toronto got to bang its head against the wall of the Joey Graham Experiment — but it was clear then, as now, that for the trade to make any sense at all on paper, even a little bit, the Raptors needed Mourning to show up and play reasonably well for the team. That he immediately said no thanks, deciding instead to just never report to Toronto at all, made an already really bad trade look even worse.

Now, it’s possible to see overmatched GM Rob Babcock’s (RIP) thinking on this. Mourning had been one of the preeminent centres in the East over the past decade. He was a seven-time All-Star and two-time defensive player of the year. And though he had declined after missing a season due to a serious kidney issue, he still had a lot of veteran know-how and toughness. More than that (particularly to that version of the Raptors), Mourning was a name. People knew and respected him, both in and out of the league. Yes, this style of thinking is what led the Raptors to gamble on Antonio Davis (which worked out) and Hakeem Olajuwon (which did not), but it was also all they had.

The truth is, the Raptors were dealing Carter from a position of extreme disadvantage. He’d sulked his way through the last couple of seasons and put Toronto on the back-foot for any possible deal. It’s unlikely even a Jerry West-type GM, one loaded with clout, could have pulled off a better trade. Everyone in the NBA — including Mourning — knew this. Which made it easy for the Nets to pull the trigger on the deal, and made it even easier for Mourning to just say no. What was Toronto going to do?

In this, I admit, Zo still seems like something of a jerk to me. Yes, I get that being traded to Toronto under the cloud of Carter’s departure was not the kind of comeback Mourning was looking to make. While he was no longer an All-Star player, averaging 10.4 points and 7.1 rebounds for the Nets over 18 games, the then-34-year-old Mourning was obviously hoping to help a team compete and contend. That he found his way back to the Heat and won a championship in 2006 seems proof enough of that.

Still, the entire fabric of the NBA — and pro sports — is often based around the transactional nature of the business, for better or worse. For a team like the Raptors, a team with no leverage or ability to attract or retain better players, trades like this one were all they had to even try to compete and contend. Sure, Mourning had his reasons for not reporting, but it wasn’t like the Raptors had set out to ruin his life. They were just trying to do what they could to salvage an awful situation.

Which leads us to our punchline here: the Raptors eventually waived Mourning on February 11, 2005, deeming him unfit to play for the team. Just over two weeks later, on March 1, Zo signed with the Heat, where he’d go on to appear in another 186 games.

The Wikipedia Fun-Fact Deep-Dive

Serious kidney disease is not a fun fact, per se, but it did indeed strike Mourning during the late-period of his prime. For most of his career, Zo was a metronome, a steady near 20-10 producer and super rim protector. (It’s why highlights featuring dunks on Zo are both hard to find, and extremely delightful). Yes, there were a few injury-plagued seasons in there, but when Mourning was on the court, he was producing.

Which made the news of Mourning’s sudden diagnosis of focal glomerulosclerosis — a serious kidney ailment — such a shock. Here was one of the strongest, most powerful guys in the NBA, who was now facing a near-fatal illness. The diagnosis forced Mourning to miss the entire 2002-03 season and approach retirement. If not for his estranged cousin, U.S. Marine Jason Cooper, Mourning may not have gotten the kidney transplant he needed to not only survive, but make a full return to the NBA. This is wild to consider, especially after noting that Zo eventually did undergo the transplant procedure in December 2003 so as to be back on the court — and trade eligible — for the 2004-05 season.

A fun footnote to add here: Patrick Ewing, a good friend of Mourning’s and fellow Georgetown alum, was also considered as a candidate for the transplant, before Cooper emerged as the best donor.

A Highlight

The only possible answer, and a perfect summary of the reaction to the Vince Carter trade for Toronto, Alonzo Mourning’s response to said trade, and the perspective it takes to understand it all now in retrospect:

This did not occur while Alonzo Mourning was a “member” of the Raptors, but, as with all things now related to Zo: it serves as a fitting epitaph. He’s made his peace with life, and all we can do is the same.

Where Are They Now?

You’ll be happy to know, Mourning has been involved in various charity works over the past few decades. He established Alonzo Mourning Charities Inc. back in 1997, launched Zo’s Fund for Life to fight focal glomerulosclerosis, and co-founded Athletes for Hope to help facilitate the involvement of pro athletes in charitable causes. There’s also Mourning’s local Miami work, including founding the Overtown Community Center. These are all presumably still ongoing endeavours in some form or another — and good on Mourning for getting so involved. Through it all, by the way, he has remained employed by the Heat as their Vice President of Player Programs and Development.

You’ll also be happy to note that Mourning was eventually inducted into the NBA Hall of Fame in 2014, and just last year was added to the FIBA version as well. Clearly, his career and retirment have been going well. Which means, using our acute sense of perspective, we can finally say: that’s enough of ever thinking about Alonzo Mourning again.