Alonzo Mourning might not have known he was in Michael Jordan’s sights during a random regular season game in 1992 — Mourning’s rookie year.
But he was. And Michael Wilbon took full responsibility for that on the latest episode of The Lowe Post podcast, hosted by Zach Lowe. Both Lowe and Wilbon work for ESPN.
To hear Wilbon tell it, he was in Chicago for a matchup between the Jordan’s Bulls and Mourning’s Charlotte Hornets on an innocuous assignment for the Washington Post, then his employer. His sports editor at the time had the idea to profile Mourning, a recent Georgetown graduate (Wilbon covered Georgetown basketball), as the rookie big man had gotten off to a fast start in his first NBA season.
Indeed, Mourning smashed expectations out of the gate, averaging 17.4 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.7 blocks in the first 16 games of his career that (presumably) led up to the fateful night in Chicago Wilbon described. All that in spite of entering the league with the reputation of a defensive-focused center that could score just “10-12 points” per night, according to Wilbon.
A nice story. But what would make it, in Wilbon’s eyes, was insight from Jordan and Scottie Pippen about Mourning’s hot start and enormous potential.
“I walk in the (Bulls) locker room, the usual pre-media period. And I’m talking to Michael, he goes, ‘What’re you doing out here (in Chicago) this early (before the playoffs)?’” Wilbon told Lowe. “And I go — and I didn’t answer the question directly because I knew what might be coming — I made up something. ‘Ah, I’m coming home to see my family.’”
Smart of Wilbon to not tip Jordan to the fact that he was there only for his insight on Mourning. Jordan, though, would inevitably catch on.
“So I start asking him about a lot of stuff but then zeroing in on Mourning. And he pauses and he says, ‘Wait a minute. You fly to your home, my home now, to write about a blankity blank Georgetown blankity blank? Really? Did you do that? You flew here to walk in here to ask me about a Georgetown blankity blank?’” Wilbon told Lowe, presumably substituting “blank” for curses.
“The first great shot of his (Jordan’s) life that we know about is in the National Championship game against Georgetown (in 1982)," Wilbon continued. "Then he and Patrick Ewing have this rivalry for years, Knicks-Bulls, it’s still Georgetown to him. And I was like ‘uh oh.’”
Once a rival, always a rival in the eyes of Jordan. Worse is that he wasn’t about to drop the topic after a few words of chastisement. There was always another competitive level to go to.
“Michael then continues and says, ‘What’re you gonna write if he scores no points tonight?’ Because I’d been asking him about Alonzo’s scoring, right. ‘What’re you gonna write then? What’re you gonna put in the Washington Post tomorrow? If he goes for no points?’” Wilbon recalled. When he asked Jordan to clarify, the response was apparently simple: “'You know what I said, you heard what I just said. No points.'
“But you have to get, people have to understand the full Michael Jordan thing. He probably needed something that night to get up for some rookie and get up for Charlotte. Like in a game in, you know, December.”
Mourning did score that night, but not nearly to the level of prolificity he had in the opening stretch of his career. Wilbon remembered this occasion as being Mourning’s rookie season, in Chicago and in December. If those memories serve, this matchup between the Bulls and Hornets on Dec. 15, 1992 is the most likely night for this story to have occurred.
Mourning’s final line that night: 11 points, 4-for-10 shooting, nine rebounds, two blocks, three turnovers.
“When Jordan was in the game, he had no points,” Wilbon recalled. “And Jordan went down and doubled down on him, took his left hand away, and just specific stuff. And you’re like, ‘Oh my god, he did everything he told me before the game.’”
This isn’t the first public telling of this story. Housed in a Washington Post archive is a column titled “The Speech: That's MJ” from Sep. 2009. There, Wilbon recounts the tale in written form. In that piece, he says he, “felt bad that Mourning was going to pay for this slight more than me.”
When all was said and done, Mourning went on to an illustrious, Hall of Fame career that featured seven All-Star appearances, two Defensive Player of the Year awards, and a title with the Miami Heat. He earned All-Rookie honors in the season in question.
And Wilbon got his story.
“And when I get back there (to the Bulls locker room) — this is Michael Jordan — he says, ‘Hey, don’t be hard on this kid, he’s gonna be a great, great player. He’s gonna be a great two-way player,’” Wilbon said. “And he starts talking all these great things about Alonzo Mourning that I, of course, write about in the Washington Post the next day.
“That’s who he is.”