Alonzo Mourning on What it Takes to be Strong

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In the late 1990s, Craig “Ironhead” Heyward starred in a Zest body wash commercial in which the bruising fullback tried to make loofas seem a little manlier. Around the same time, Alonzo Mourningwas forging a reputation as one of the NBA’s biggest badasses, who was known for his toughness and strength in the paint. And trading haymakers with Knicks rival Larry Johnson with Jeff Van Gundy hanging onto his shoe like a piece of bubble gum.
 
Mourning is the latest hard guy hawking soft soap. Now a pitchman for Dove Men+Care, he’s talking about the rugged manliness of caring and nurturing and the new meaning of the word “strength.” We caught up with the NBA Hall-of-Famer to talk about what defines a strong man, what makes a team strong, and what “old-man strength” means to him.
 
How do you define true strength?
When you think about our fathers and our grandfathers and how we were told to be strong and suck it up and be a man, those times have changed. The true definition of strength is about care. It’s about supporting. It’s about helping. It’s about uplifting in so many different ways. Strength is also shown in leadership — leading in the right way, not leading with aggressiveness, but leading by showing people the way, uplifting them, and showing them support and love.
 
Where do you think the perception of strength began to change?
It started probably in the Millennium, in 2000, when people started looking at life a lot differently. I felt it and noticed it tremendously. I know that as a father, my definition of strength now is not about telling my son to suck it up and be a man. You still want him to be tough, you do, but I’m a lot more apt to kissing him. When I was growing up, my father didn’t kiss me the way I kiss and hug my sons. I show a lot more affection to my boys than my father showed me.
 
When you become a father, you become a new person with new responsibilities. What was that transformation like for you?
It was a very emotional moment for me. Because I just saw a piece of me come into this world, a part of me, and it was extremely humbling. It let me know immediately that I’m responsible for this human being and I was ready to step up to the plate and make it happen.
 
That’s something that sticks with you, as you mature as a man. Have you seen that inner strength mature inside of you and develop over time?
None of us know what’s out there until it happens. When it happens, life as you know it just totally changes. Kids are god’s gift to us and many of us don’t really take advantage of it that way. But they are. They’re a gift. So there is a certain level of nurturing and attention that goes into making sure that they get all the necessary support that they need and that is truly a sign of strength. Being a parent, overall, is the definition of strength for me. You have a lot of single parents out there. Talk about strength — that is truly a sign of strength.
 
Who was the toughest opponent you ever faced as a player?
Hakeem Olajuwon.
 
How so?
His quickness was intimidating. It really was. Because a guy his size wasn’t supposed to move that way. Really, his agility and his skill level just allowed him to be very elusive at that position and it made it difficult to guard him. It was almost like he was a center in a two-guard’s body.
 
You recently played golf with President Obama. What are those games like?
Very, very casual. You’re playing with a man who is the most powerful man in the world. Him stepping out of the office for a minute just to relax and get away with friends, it’s a very relaxed setting. It’s giving him an opportunity to get away from the stress of his job. We all know what type of job that it and what it entails. So him taking time out to spend time with friends, we make it very comfortable and relaxed for him. We joke around. It’s all in fun, competing and playing the game with friends.
 
You’ve said that Michael Jordan would score 50 points a game in today’s NBA. Why do you think that?
Because of the rules changes and how they guard perimeter players now. There’s no hand-checking anymore. Back when I first came into the league, you could actually put your hands on perimeter players, so it made it very difficult to drive and get to the hole as easily as it is now. It’s hard to really touch guys. The game’s really changed. I just feel like he would be shooting a lot more free-throws than he did before. He already averaged 30-a-game in every playoff series that he was a part of. That’s unheard of.
 
That was a golden age for defense, in the 90s.
That’s right. The way teams prepared defensively, that determined a lot. Now it’s not a defensive-oriented game.
 
How do you stay fit these days?
I spin and I lift. I cut out lots of carbs. Yesterday, just a typical day for me, I didn’t have one piece of bread at all. I had no pasta, no rice, no potatoes. I had a lot of vegetables. I eat a lot of roughage, I juice a lot, and I eat a lot of protein — fish, chicken, turkey, things of that nature. I eat a lot of beans. So it’s just a diet I balance with exercise. Yesterday I spent about an hour and a half in the weight room, just getting my heart rate up. It basically comes down to putting together a plan, understanding how you accumulate weight, and eliminating those things. I don’t drink sodas at all; I drink an abundance of water. A whole lot of water. You basically are what you put in your body, as the saying goes.
 
When you were younger, you probably heard of the phenomenon that is “old-man strength.”
Yes. My grandfather had that old-man strength. I used to hate to shake my grandfather’s hand. That’s why now I have a very firm handshake. It’s because of my grandfather. He shook my hand when I was a kid and I remember him telling us, “Shake my hand like a man. Give me a firm handshake and look me in the eye.” From that day on, it’s amazing how you never forget little things as a kid that just stay with you. From that day on, I’ve shook every man’s hand as firm as I could and I looked ’em in the eye.
 
As far as being a team that can make a deep playoff run either in the NCAA Tournament or the NBA Playoffs, what character traits do you need on the court to get you through the postseason grinder?
Discipline. It’s so important. Trusting the game plan. Players have to have the discipline and the trust that it’s going to work and they have to work that game plan as hard as they can. Don’t make it up. The teams that trust what the coaches implement and they put their heart and soul into it are the ones that will basically come out on top. Also, there is a certain talent level involved. But it comes down to the coach putting in a game plan and the guys trusting it.
 
All the teams you played on, from Georgetown to the Miami Heat, have the identity of being tough. As a team, how important is having an identity?
It’s how people depict who you are. It’s very important, especially in college… that Georgetown aura. It affected a lot of how people played us. It originated back in the 80s with Hoya Paranoia and that identity was key. It’s how people connect with you. It forced us to live up to that, first of all, and second, I think that identity gives you strength. It really does. When things are not going well, you can fall back on it.