Alonzo Mourning recalls Jeff Van Gundy’s desperate attempt to stop him from brawling with Larry Johnson: “He felt like a piece of gum on my shoe”

Jeff Van Gundy desperately wrapped his arms around Alonzo Mourning
Jeff Van Gundy desperately wrapped his arms around Alonzo Mourning's leg in Game 4 of the 1998 playoffs. (Image via ESPN)

Alonzo Mourning, one of the fiercest competitors in the NBA throughout his career, was part of one of the league’s most infamous but memorable brawls. His fight against Larry Johnson during the first round of the 1998 playoffs was something basketball fans may not see again today.

Perhaps the most iconic image of that dustup was New York Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy desperately holding on to Mourning’s leg. Van Gundy wanted to prevent the fight from escalating, which looked foolish if not hilarious as he was in the middle of the giants.

In an interview with Vince Carter, Alonzo Mourning recalled how the Van Gundy episode went down:

“I love Jeff Van Gundy. … The emotion, the level of intensity of our competition was so intense it carried over to the coaches, it really did. The coaches were ready to fight just as the players were ready to fight. That’s how the tension was when he played against the Knicks.

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“When Jeff came out to protect his players, I admired that. At that time, he felt like a piece of gum on my shoe but I was trying to shake him off. He was wrapped around [my leg] and holding on for dear life.”

Mourning and Johnson were former teammates with the Charlotte Hornets for three underwhelming seasons before they went their separate ways. The former became the Miami Heat’s biggest star, while the latter became a vital cog for the New York Knicks.

Their feud started when Alonzo Mourning complained publicly about Larry Johnson’s contract. In 1993, “LJ” signed a 12-year deal worth $84 million that was then the biggest in pro basketball. The emerging center from Georgetown felt like he was the Hornets’ best player instead of Johnson.

In two seasons as teammates, Mourning averaged 21.3 points, 10.1 rebounds, 1.3 assists, and 3.2 blocks. Johnson, on the other hand, put up 19.9 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 4.0 assists.

The Knicks and Heat met in the playoffs for four straight years from 1997 to 2000. It was in 1998 that the boiling point of the Mourning-Johnson feud reached its peak.

Alonzo Mourning eventually won a championship with the Miami Heat while Larry Johnson retired without winning one

Alonzo Mourning became an NBA champion in 2006 with the Miami Heat. (Image via The Athletic)
Alonzo Mourning became an NBA champion in 2006 with the Miami Heat. (Image via The Athletic)

After years of futile playing for the Miami Heat, Alonzo Mourning ultimately fulfilled his championship aspirations in 2006. He was a role player in Pat Riley’s title-winning team behind star Dwyane Wade and former rival Shaquille O’Neal.

“Zo” played as Shaq’s main backup, averaging 7.8 points and 5.5 rebounds in 65 games during the 2005-06 season. He played 21 games in the postseason and led the NBA in field goal percentage with 70.3%.

Alonzo Mourning retired two seasons later and had his number retired by the Miami Heat, the first in franchise history.

Larry Johnson’s career didn’t pan out as many expected. He couldn’t shake off various back issues that left him compromised for most of his career.

“LJ” reached the NBA Finals in 1999 after the eighth-seeded Knicks upset the top-seeded Miami Heat. They just had the misfortune of running into the San Antonio Spurs’ twin-tower combo of David Robinson and Tim Duncan. It also didn’t help that Patrick Ewing couldn’t play a game in that series.

Larry Johnson retired after the 2000-01 season without winning a coveted championship.

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Edited by Michael Macasero
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