MIAMI -- Alonzo Mourning's endurance test begins Tuesday, and it will be the most daunting challenge of his career.
As he battles an incurable kidney disease discovered a year ago this week, the Miami Heat's All-Star center will try to coax his body through an entire NBA season.
First comes four weeks of training camp and preseason play, followed by 82 games and then -- if the Heat's revamped roster jells -- the playoffs.
No one, not even the doctors who have cleared Mourning to play, knows how well he'll hold up.
''My attitude is to go into this cutting no corners whatsoever and doing what I can to last and contribute,'' he said Monday, on the eve of the first practice. ''I really don't think about any of the possible uncertainties. I'm taking this thing one day at a time.''
Rarely has that cliche sounded so sensible. Last season, Mourning missed training camp and the first 69 games because of the disease, focal glomerulosclerosis, which is now in remission but could eventually necessitate a kidney transplant.
Given his ordeal of the past year, Mourning looks forward to wind sprints, defensive drills and other drudgery to come this month under demanding coach Pat Riley.
''I'm pleased just to have an opportunity to be back and start training camp,'' said Mourning, 31.
And the Heat are delighted to have him back, despite doubts regarding how much he can contribute.
When Mourning returned last March, he averaged 13.3 points, 7.3 rebounds and 24.5 minutes per game in 16 games, including three consecutive drubbings by Charlotte in the first round of the playoffs.
He became winded easily and admitted after the season he might have returned too soon. The Heat went 42-27 without Mourning and 8-8 after his return.
He's still on medication and a restricted diet and sees a doctor twice a month. But his muscular physique and disarming expressions -- the familiar competitive glare that can quickly dissolve into a smile -- offer no hint of a career-threatening kidney disease.
''He looks as good as he has ever looked physically,'' Riley said. ''Last year he lost a lot of weight, lost a lot of strength and lost what Zo looks like. Now he has stabilized mentally and physically, and he looks great. He's as cut as I've ever seen him. He's strong.''
Mourning is probably not strong enough to play 40 minutes a game, or perhaps even 30, which means he may not be strong enough to carry a rebuilding team.
Tim Hardaway, Anthony Mason and Dan Majerle are gone, and Mourning will be surrounded by more young, unproven talent than at any time in his seven seasons with Miami.
''It's going to be great, because I've got guys to carry my bags now and wait on me hand and foot,'' he joked. ''I'm going to take advantage of the rookies being around.''
Turning serious, Mourning said the departure of so many veterans ''is going to be kind of weird. I'm going to miss Tim dearly. But you can't linger on that, man.''
The heavy roster turnover follows four consecutive seasons of losing in the playoffs to a lower-seeded opponent. Riley's makeover likely won't be complete until 2003, when Mourning's seven-year contract expires.
This season, a team that has been a perennial preseason favorite in the Eastern Conference might be hard-pressed just to make the playoffs.
''I like our chances,'' Mourning said. ''If we can stay healthy, come postseason I feel we can make some good things happen and be a team to reckon with. Health is a huge factor.''
As he knows all too well.
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