Mourning coming back for final season

By Tim Reynolds

MIAMI – Alonzo Mourning is coming back, one more time.

Ending nearly three months of suspense about his future, the Miami Heat center said Sunday night at his annual Zo’s Summer Groove charity game that he’ll play again next season – a choice he kept secret to the end, insisting he was still deciding just hours before the actual announcement.

“I will be coming back,” Mourning said.

This was the third straight summer Mourning considered retirement before choosing to keep playing. Next season will be his 15th in the NBA, not including a full year he missed with kidney problems that led to him getting a transplant in 2003.

“It will definitely be my last year,” Mourning said.

Mourning averaged 8.6 points last season for the Heat, and his 5.44 blocks per 48 minutes led the NBA by a wide margin. He started more than half of Miami’s games last season while Shaquille O’Neal recovered from knee surgery, and the Heat clearly wanted him back – especially since his $2.8 million salary for next season makes the seven-time All-Star a bargain.

Some of his teammates weren’t surprised by the decision.

Heat forward Dorell Wright, who played in the charity game along with a list of NBA players that included Carlos Boozer, Sam Cassell and Damon Stoudamire, predicted before the game that Mourning would be back, simply based on the weightlifting regimen he’d been following this offseason.

“I love having Zo in the locker room and out on the court,” Wright said.

Cleveland guard Damon Jones, Mourning’s former teammate in Miami, said the 6-foot-10 former Georgetown star’s presence ensures that Miami will have a “championship confidence” next season.

“He’s one of those guys who really cares about winning,” Jones said. “He showed last year when Shaq went down that he can still play … he had great numbers and he puts it all on the line.”

And Mourning’s decision suggests that Heat coach Pat Riley may be returning as well.

Mourning said repeatedly in recent weeks that Riley’s status for next year would weigh heavily on his decision. Riley started a lengthy vacation this weekend and was not immediately available for comment Sunday night, but Mourning indicated that he expects the coach of five NBA champions to be on the sideline again.

“I think he’s got an incredible basketball mind and he wants to continue to share it with the world and with this team and I don’t see him retiring now,” Mourning said. “Honestly, I don’t. That’s my own personal opinion but, hey, I could be wrong.”

Mourning’s return is the first offseason personnel move that worked out to Miami’s liking.

The Heat lost 3-point specialist Jason Kapono to Toronto in free agency, may see free agent forward James Posey sign elsewhere in the coming days, and Mourning said guard Gary Payton won’t be coming back to Miami – although neither Payton nor the team has publicly expressed those sentiments.

Miami also missed out in its pursuit of Milwaukee point guard Mo Williams, who agreed to take a $52 million, six-year deal and stay with the Bucks. But Mourning said he’s certain the Heat will find help elsewhere before next season begins.

“There’s other players out there that can possibly be available,” Mourning said. “Decisions have to be made in order to possibly obtain them. I’m going to leave it to Pat Riley. You want to see a guy like Mo Williams and a player of his caliber. You want to see that. But if it doesn’t work, you’ve got to move on. That’s the nature of this business. Everything doesn’t go your way all the time.”