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Former Charlotte Hornet Alonzo Mourning still commands attention

After practice Sunday, Miami players, starters and substitutes go to Alonzo Mourning, or he goes to them. They shake hands, talk and joke.

Mourning, 44, is in his fifth year as the Heat’s vice president of player programs. He doesn’t look markedly different than he did when he played for the Charlotte Hornets, although he smiles more.

Mourning is 6 foot 10, lean and the best-dressed guy in Time Warner Cable Arena’s practice gym – although I didn’t see what Heat president Pat Riley was wearing.

The Orlando Magic took Shaquille O’Neal with the first pick in the 1992 draft and the Charlotte Hornets took Mourning with the second. Although he could score, his trademark was his defense. He treated every opposing shot as if it was an imposition.

As a rookie, he helped the Hornets to their first playoff berth. In game four, Mourning hit a 20-foot jump shot at the buzzer to beat Boston and win the series. Charlotte Coliseum turned louder than it ever had and teammates crazily swarmed their center.

The shot still is the most talked about in Charlotte history.

“Really?” asks Mourning. “I don’t think about it too often. But it’s one of the biggest highlights of my career, for sure.”

You never pull it out to show Miami players what you could do?

“They know,” says Mourning. “It’s out of respect. They know what I did for the game.”

The Hornets quickly came undone. They overpaid forward Larry Johnson, and couldn’t or wouldn’t offer the same money to Mourning. There was infighting. Players were shipped out. Charlotte traded Mourning to Miami in 1995.

Mourning played 15 NBA seasons. He suffered a kidney disease called segremental glomerulosclerosis and received a kidney from a cousin. He won a championship with the Heat in 2006. He wore the ring Sunday.

Earlier this month, he learned he’d be inducted in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of fame the first player drafted by the Hornets to make it.

“I’m very, very thankful and grateful for the opportunities I was given, and I tried to play the game the right way,” says Mourning. “I guess the pinnacle of sport, the reward of it all, is being inducted into the basketball hall of fame.”

Intensity is Mourning’s legacy. Miami’s weight room is named after him.

In Charlotte, nothing bears his name. But the name of his former team is coming back.

“I don’t see this place as the Bobcats at all,” says Mourning. “If you think of the history of NBA basketball here in Charlotte, you think of the Hornets. Because that’s where it all started, that’s where it was established, the excitement of that team.”

He occasionally sees former teammates during all-star festivities. Driving through Charlotte, he sees streets he remembers and a city that does not look the same.

“Tyvola, obviously, I used to take that street to work,” Mourning says. “I see downtown and how it’s changed tremendously. I lived in the South Park area so I see how that’s grown quite a bit.

“Driving around, you just see the growth. I’m happy to see that the city is changing for the better. And having a team downtown has done a lot of great things for the city, obviously the Panthers have done a lot of great things.”

When you think of your Charlotte teams, what do you think about?

“The energy of the Hornets back in ’92 and our first playoff run,” says Mourning. “The team that we had was the beginning of something special. It’s unfortunate that we had basketball management that broke us apart.”

Did you know what you had with those early Charlotte teams?

“It was a fun group, very upbeat, very talented, very entertaining,” says Mourning. “Back then we played the right way. We played a fast pace, we shot the ball, we were a high-flying team.

“Yeah, we had a tough hard-nosed defense, and I was the anchor of that defense for the most part. That team, during this era, I think would have been huge. We would have made a lot of noise in the Eastern Conference.”

This era offers talented teams. One of them is in the practice gym.

Could you have held your own with these guys?

“I hold my own with a lot of people,” Mourning says.