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Sunday, February 14, 2010

Legends Brunch Honors Alonzo Mourning, Five Great Mavs

Most mainstream media coverage of this All-Star Weekend either revolves around the seemingly 24 hour a day party circuit that has become this event's trademark or the spectacle that will take place tonight at Jerry Jones' billion dollar pleasure palace--but the hidden gem that sparkles brightest for me is the Legends Brunch. It is both a duty and a privilege to recognize, acknowledge and praise the people whose hard work and sacrifices built NBA basketball into the popular sport/multibillion dollar business that it has become.

One of the really fun aspects of the brunch is that except for the tables right at the front that are reserved for certain players and their families you can sit wherever you want, providing an opportunity to really mingle with the retired players. My tablemates included Ollie Taylor, Nate Williams (one of Pistol Pete Maravich's teammates with the New Orleans Jazz), Major Jones (one of four brothers who each played at Albany State before playing in the NBA) and Jones' wife Renee Taplin-Jones.

TNT's Ernie Johnson served as Master of Ceremonies, deftly mixing self-deprecating humor with appropriate praise for the distinguished gathering of all-time greats. NBA Commissioner David Stern opened his remarks by acknowledging how big this event has become (the attendance likely exceeded 1000 people in one huge ballroom): "Standing room only is what this group deserves." He called the Legends Brunch "a highlight among highlights" during All-Star Weekend. "Former players are the foundation of our success," Stern added.

This year's Legends Brunch honored a particularly eloquent and accomplished group. Stern presented the Legend of the Year award to Alonzo Mourning, whose tireless work for Haiti's earthquake victims is just the latest in a long line of his charitable endeavors. The face of Mourning known to the general public was perpetually twisted into an intense and fiery visage during his playing days but we saw a completely different side of him during his acceptance speech. Mourning said, "This particular honor I will cherish simply because of Wayman Tisdale," the Phoenix Suns' great who was honored at last year's Legends Brunch shortly before losing his battle with cancer. Mourning added, "I've always been hesitant about receiving awards for doing what you are supposed to do." Mourning believes that every person has an obligation to do something to make the world a better place and that the world would be completely different if more people fulfilled that obligation. He quoted Muhammad Ali: "Service to others is the rent you pay on Earth."

Dallas Cowboys legend Emmitt Smith, the NFL's all-time rushing leader who will be inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame later this year, presented the Legends Leadership Award to Derek Harper. Harper was the point guard for some great Dallas teams in the 1980s but he readily acknowledged that he "owes Mark (Aguirre) money" because all of the Mavs from that era know that "we lived off of Mark," one of the most underrated forwards in pro basketball history.

Basketball Hall of Famer Nancy Lieberman presented the Pioneer Award to Rolando Blackman, who was born in Panama City but raised in New York City. Blackman praised his "great, cerebral teammates" who helped him to be so successful. Blackman said that he is known as a deadeye shooter (the four-time All-Star owns a .493 career field goal percentage) but that many people don't understand that teamwork played a big role in that success; his teammates set good screens and delivered their passes on time and on target. Blackman said that this lesson applies to life in general because "We really don't do anything by ourselves."

Three-time All-Star and two-time Sixth Man of the Year Detlef Schrempf presented the Humanitarian Award to Sam Perkins, who seemed to be truly surprised and humbled. Perkins thought that he was just going to attend the Brunch until he found out shortly before he traveled to Dallas that he would in fact be one of the honorees. Mourning mentioned how difficult it is for him to accept that his playing days are over but Perkins joked that he can deal with this because he is not the oldest retired player in the room: there are "cats, cougars and mountain lions," so Mourning and Perkins are just starting out down that trail. Perkins said that he is more of an "honorable mention" than a true legend when compared to some of the all-time greats present at the brunch.

Bill Walton presented the ABC (Athletics, Business, Communities) Award to James Donaldson, a one-time All-Star with Dallas who previously had been Walton's teammate with the Clippers in both San Diego and Los Angeles. The massive Donaldson--listed at 7-2, 275 pounds during his playing days--was born in England and after 14 NBA seasons he finished his playing career in Europe before returning to the United States to open a thriving physical therapy business.

Magic Johnson presented the Career Achievement Award to his long-time friend Mark Aguirre, noting that Aguirre still holds the Maverick single season scoring average record (29.5 ppg, 1983-84). Johnson applauded Mourning for his charitable work before turning his attention to Aguirre and the other Maverick award winners, declaring, "What you've seen here this morning are some of the smartest guys to play basketball." Johnson added, "We (Johnson's L.A. Lakers) used to hate to play Dallas" because the Mavericks executed their offense better than any other team in the league.

Aguirre seemed to be truly overwhelmed by the whole event, gushing that he had no idea about the extent of Mourning's philanthropic endeavors or about some of the worthwhile projects being led by the other honorees. Aguirre expressed his desire to become more involved in those activities and offer whatever support that he can. He also praised the "incredible mentors" who helped him along the way, specifically mentioning legendary DePaul Coach Ray Meyer. Aguirre revealed that Meyer taught him how to perfect Oscar Robertson's trademark one handed jumper so that he could always keep defenders guessing about the timing and release point of the shot. Most of the speakers echoed Mourning's call that we should all be givers and not just takers but Aguirre admitted that he "took" a lot of ideas during his playing days: besides Robertson's shot, Aguirre also "stole" Alex English's runner and Bernard King's patented spin move. Aguirre reminisced about playing an old Mattel NBA game as a child and said that he is proud to pass on to his daughters knowledge about the history of the game and the feats accomplished by his heroes, including Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell.

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posted by David Friedman @ 3:39 PM

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