Every time you ask Alonzo Mourning a question about his life, he derails the conversation. The philanthropist and former Miami Heat center wants to talk about Haiti, where he volunteered days after the earthquake. Then it's on to education politics in Florida. Or maybe the six-foot ten-inch giant wants you to understand the lives of special-needs children such as his 10-year-old daughter.
Now 40 and living in Coral Gables, Mourning has put his sociology degree from Georgetown University (where he frequently made the dean's list) to good use. His foundation, AM Charities, oversees Honey Shine, a mentoring program for girls; the Overtown Youth Center, an after-school program for at-risk children; and Zo's Fund for Life, a kidney disease research fund. Much of the money is raised each year at Zo's Summer Groove, a multiday youth basketball clinic, free block party, and all-star game.
Part of Mourning's motivation to pour millions of his own money into nonprofit programs is that, well, he can afford to. But there's also a deeper personal connection.
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Zo grew up in Virginia, the product of a broken home. He petitioned himself into foster care at the age of 11. "There's a stigma. I was embarrassed to tell people," he recollects. After joining the Heat in 1996, he would frequently take alternate routes to the arena so he could drive through the inner city. He related to children growing up in Overtown, where only two of 12 graduate from high school. In 2003, he collaborated with educational leaders to open the youth center. It takes around 250 kids a year and has a graduation success rate of 100 percent. Nearly all of them go on to college.
In 2000, Mourning was riding high off an Olympic win in Sydney when he was suddenly diagnosed with degenerative kidney disease. His basketball career almost came to a halt before a transplant three years later. He started Zo's Fund for Life shortly after and then lobbied for a bill, signed into law by Gov. Charlie Crist last year, that aids kidney disease patients.
Last year, the Miami-Dade school board voted to name a high school after him. He beat out former U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno. It might seem a strange move to some folks, but they've probably never listened to the Heat's all-time leading scorer break into a passionate speech about education and disadvantaged communities. "Is my work the answer?" he says after rattling off a series of disheartening statistics about prison expenditures and graduation rates in Florida. "No. But each and every one of us has had individuals who contributed to our development and well-being. I don't want to waste my time on Earth."
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