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Mourning wins Hornets fans' hearts PRO BASKETBALL


CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- There was a time, in the first few weeks of his employment with the Charlotte Hornets, when Alonzo Mourning's jump shot was not welcome.

You know, that precious, gorgeous, wonderful, awesome, incredible jump shot that won the game Wednesday night, brought Charlotte leaping to its feet with a scream that cracked windows as far west as Albuquerque, beat the storied Boston Celtics and set the Hornets on their way to the second round of the NBA playoffs.

The jump shot heard around the NBA was a warning shot that soon, maybe not this year but soon, the Charlotte Hornets will be more than the little darlings of the NBA playoffs, they'll be a major force.

We've gone from frowning when Zo shot the long ones -- a rookie trying to show us he had some O to go with his specialty, the D -- to smothering him with acclaim for doing the same thing. Coach Allan Bristow watched the 6 feet 10 kid with the Schwarzenegger arms and legs fire long jumpers and semi-long hook shots and gritted his teeth. Mourning was taking low-percentage shots while Larry Johnson and the others were waiting for the pass under the hoop.

The fans watched and twisted up their faces and said, "Aw, geez, Alonzo, give it up."

Now, six months and one dramatic playoff series-winning jump shot later, Zo can shoot from half court if he wants to, full court, the dressing room, heck, the parking lot. Wherever Zo wants to shoot, he can shoot and it's OK with us.

That's pretty much the way our whole attitude toward him has changed. For awhile there before he signed, the town was ready to trade him. Now, talk about trading Alonzo Mourning and, buddy, you're going to have to fight.

With Johnson, Kendall Gill, Dell Curry, Muggsy Bogues and the others, it was obvious the Hornets could become contenders for a playoff berth if they could get lucky in the draft one more time. They did, getting second pick, and found Mourning waiting there, a player who would have been a certain No. 1 had Shaquille O'Neal not decided to come out early.

But Mourning held out. And held out. And held out, until the season started without him. Half the town was mad at Mourning and his agent, the other half at Hornets management for not settling this thing sooner.

Hadn't Johnson, who would become a huge star, backed off his demands the year before in order to sign and get into uniform for the opener? But here was Mourning sitting silent while his agent stared the Hornets down.

Johnson was loved immediately. There was joy in his game. He showed his emotions, smiled a lot, hugged his teammates and encouraged them and raised their level of play. He became a father figure.

With Mourning, though, it took awhile. We remembered him as the somber, scowling enforcer from Georgetown, a basketball team that doesn't enjoy great popularity in these parts. And then he held out and we took it personally.

But it happened. You've got to love a guy who tries to punch Bill Laimbeer. You've gotta love a guy who blocks nine shots, scores 19 points and grabs 14 rebounds against the world champion Chicago Bulls, in Chicago. A man who scores 36 points and grabs 22 rebounds against the Detroit Pistons.

You've gotta love a guy who is forced to take the last shot with less than a second to play and his team down one in the playoffs, the biggest shot in franchise history, and nails it.

But the best thing about Mourning is his effort. His eyes are already bright but when he's out there and there's a rebound to be gotten or a shot to be slapped away, they get bigger and brighter and in them is the reflection of the fire with which he plays, without fail.

There's only so much stardom to go around on any one team. The hot rookie could disrupt a team's chemistry. It didn't happen. For that, you have to thank Johnson, who saw Mourning not as a threat but an ally, but Mourning had to make it work, too.

The crowd loves the way Mourning plays. And they especially like his jump shot.

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