MIAMI – Shaquille O’Neal never passes up an opportunity to poke fun at his buddy Charles Barkley.
And he has Alonso Mourning, a former rival turned teammate and close friend, to thank for his most favorite recurring joke.
“I can proudly and boastly run around and go like this to people like Chuck,” O’Neal said, holding up four fingers instead of three for his NBA titles, sitting beside Mourning in the cafeteria of a new charter school and youth center under construction in one of Miami’s roughest neighborhoods.
“If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here. I owe him everything.”
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Teaming up again
O’Neal and Mourning, who won the 2006 NBA title together with the Miami Heat, have teamed up again to refurbish an indoor basketball court at the Overtown Youth Center as part of a $20 million project that will see a charter school added to the facility.
The Shaquille O'Neal Foundation and Icy Hot created Comebaq Courts in 2021 to refurbish basketball courts for youth programs in underserved areas. This Miami location is their third project, after Las Vegas and Newark, New Jersey.
Mourning, who founded the youth center in 2003, has worked to see the facility expand from 18,000 to 56,000 square feet. It will open in the next 5-6 months, with the charter school welcoming 300 children, from kindergarten to eighth grade, into 14 classrooms. The facility can host 2,000 people at any given time.
The best part: Mourning says all the services at this resource center will be free with the help of corporate partners.
“I’m here because of the contributions of others. My responsibility is with all the blessings I was given, is to use those blessing to bless other people,” Mourning said.
“Say that again. I’m gonna copy that one,” O’Neal said with a smile. “I’m going to have to steal that one. You’re going to hear that one on TNT.”
Mourning visited a similar facility called Self Enhancement, Inc. or SEI in Portland in 2000, and wanted to replicate the concept in Miami.
And O’Neal hopes this is a model they can use to build or transform other resource centers for young Black children across the country.
“A lot of big-time people, especially on the gram [Instagram], flashing what they got. Take care of the kids in your area,” O’Neal implores. “If we had the ability to take care of kids in 50 states, we’d do it. So, this will be a start.”
‘Arch enemies turned best friends’
Sitting next to Mourning, O’Neal can’t help but remember how they barely spoke to each other until they became Heat teammates in 2005.
O’Neal was the first pick by the Orlando Magic, while Mourning was the second pick by the Charlotte Hornets at the 1992 NBA draft in Portland where they had their first standoff. They might have bump fists before games early in their careers. But that was it.
“We never really spoke,” O’Neal said. “He’d dunk on me, and I’d dunk on him. We’d elbow each other and act like we were going to fight.”
Added Mourning: “We were just establishing ourselves. We’re alpha males.”
They bridged the gap when Mourning re-signed with the Heat in March 2005, during his return from a kidney transplant. And O’Neal wished it didn’t take so long to become Mourning’s friend.
“I’m a bully on the court, but I’m not a bully in real life. I felt really bad because this is the nicest big guy ever – besides me,” O’Neal said of Mourning.
During the 2006 NBA Finals as Dwyane Wade took over, O’Neal credits Mourning for having his back during the deciding Game 6, where Mourning had 8 points, 6 rebounds and 5 blocks while O’Neal finished with 9 points and 12 rebounds in his last Finals game.
“He saved my professional life – a lot of people don’t know that,” O’Neal said about Mourning helping him with his fourth NBA title after three with Kobe Bryant and the Los Angeles Lakers.
“What he doesn’t understand is if there’s no him, there’s no me. If it wasn’t for him, I wouldn’t be here. I owe him everything.”
Giving back together
It’s why O’Neal asked Mourning to be on stage during his introduction into the Hall of Fame in 2016 – an honor Mourning was taken back by. And why O’Neal answers Mourning’s call to see this Overtown Youth Center project through.
Mourning’s hopes for the facility to become a family resource center and a “strong, positive atmosphere of influence for young people.”
To say this is a passion project for Mourning, a Basketball Hall of Famer himself, would be an understatement.
It is a life achievement – the second he’ll celebrate this month. It will be 19 years since Mourning had his kidney transplant on Dec. 19.
“I was given the greatest gift to be able to live, and I was able to come back and play again, and able to live a productive life by somebody giving me a part of their body,” Mourning said. “I was blessed to the fullest. We want to live this life with purpose, and that purpose is helping somebody else get ahead.”
O’Neal can’t help but smile next to his friend. And he can’t wait to be by Mourning’s side again when the OYC Family Resource Center powered by Mourning Family Foundation opens next year.
“I want all the kids in Miami to know, Alonzo loves you. I love you. We care. All the counselors here love you. I encourage everybody in Miami and the world to get behind him because he does it from the heart,” O’Neal said of Mourning.
“He deeply cares.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Shaq, Alonzo Mourning join forces to improve youth center in Miami