Ex-NBA star reaches out to Ky. girl

Alonzo Mourning helps EKU coach's family cope with daughter's disease

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJuly 19, 2009 

Editor's note: This is the third in an occasional series this summer looking at college sports in the commonwealth at schools other than Kentucky and Louisville.

RICHMOND — It is one of the first things Dean and Crystal Hood remember doctors at the University of Kentucky telling them.

It came after they told the Eastern Kentucky University head football coach and his wife last summer that their then-5-year-old daughter, Jada, had the degenerative kidney disease focal segmental glomerulosclerosis.

Afterward, the doctors told the Hoods that those diagnosed with FSGS usually require a kidney transplant within five to 12 years.

It was then they mentioned the name Alonzo Mourning.

"They were looking for encouragement for us," Crystal Hood says now. "And they said Alonzo Mourning had the exact same disease, had to get a transplant, but came back and won a (NBA) championship."

What the Hoods would never have dreamed then is that Mourning, the retired pro basketball star, would take a personal interest in the case of a little girl and a family in Kentucky he did not know.

Yet it is so.

A book in the mail

The Hoods are not sure how Jada's condition came to the attention of Mourning.

Crystal speculates that some of the media coverage last summer after Jada was first diagnosed might have gotten to Mourning or his associates.

A spokeswoman for one of Mourning's charities says someone contacted the ex-NBA standout on the Hoods' behalf.

Regardless, Dean Hood was opening the mail in his office on Jan. 9 when he found a package that contained a copy of Mourning's book, Resilience.

"I thought somebody in my family had sent it to us," Hood said.

Instead, when he opened the cover of the book, there was a personal message from Mourning.

To The Hood Family. Keep The Faith. God Bless. Phil. 4:13. Alonzo Mourning #33.

The book also contained contact information for one of Mourning's personal assistants. "I called her right then and thanked her," Hood said.

The story Mourning had to recount in his book is one of the more inspiring in recent American sports history.

The former Georgetown Hoyas college star, who played for the Hornets, Heat and Nets in the NBA, was diagnosed with FSGS in October 2000.

Within three years, his condition deteriorated to the point that the seven-time NBA All-Star needed a kidney transplant.

A cousin stepped forward as a donor. The surgery was performed Dec. 19, 2003.

Though he had retired from pro hoops just before his surgery, Mourning returned to play, amazingly, 37 games in the next basketball season.

In 2006, his comeback hit its peak. Mourning was a valuable backup (7.8 points, 5.5 rebounds a game) to Shaquille O'Neal at center as Miami won the franchise's only NBA title.

After her diagnosis with FSGS last summer, Jada Hood had a rough ride of her own. While in the hospital, she had a seizure and went into a coma. There was concern she could suffer brain damage.

For weeks after she got out of the hospital, her personality changed in ways that filled her parents with anxiety.

Jada would giggle "out of context," Dean says. Motor skills she had previously developed were gone. A shy, sweet little girl before her hospitalization was suddenly prone to moodiness.

Had the brain-damage concern come true? Was it the aftereffects of the drugs Jada had been given as treatment?

The uncertainty ate at Jada's parents.

"That part," Dean Hood said, "was really tough."

But, slowly, the old Jada came back. Last October, doctors told the Hoods that their daughter's FSGS was in remission.

After Christmas, she returned to school.

"We're hopeful she'll stay in remission for a long, long time," Crystal Hood said. "We also understand that, with this illness, it is typical to get five to 12 years of kidney function. We're hoping Jada won't decline and won't be typical."

Trip to Hollywood

One day last spring, the same Mourning aide whose card had been in the autographed book the Hoods received called the EKU football office.

Each summer, Mourning, 39, holds a multiday festival and fund-raiser for charity in South Florida called The Summer Groove.

In recent years, NBA star Dwyane Wade has been the co-host. The event is heavy on celebrity power from the worlds of sports and entertainment.

Mourning's assistant was on the phone with an invitation for Jada, now 6, and her family to come to Florida for the festivities.

Oh, all the family's expenses would be paid, the woman said.

"I explained to her that I had a big family, four kids, all small, that we couldn't leave them at home," Dean Hood said. "She said 'That's OK, bring them. Everybody's covered.' "

In 2001, Mourning started a charity, Zo's Fund for Life, dedicated to battling kidney diseases.

Through that organization, "Alonzo every year brings down (to South Florida) a group of families with kids that have kidney ailments," says Michelle Revuelta, a spokeswoman for The Summer Groove. "Most have the same disease he had."

This year, there were five such families, Revuelta said.

In the days leading up to the trip, Jada Hood's parents showed her pictures from Mourning's book.

She saw the basketball player with the NBA championship trophy and an Olympic gold medal (won with USA Basketball in 2000).

A 6-year-old might not have understood the magnitude of those achievements, but "Jada knew he was somebody special," Crystal Hood said. "She kept asking 'How many days until we go meet Alonzo?' "

For four days (July 10 to 13), Jada, her parents and her three siblings all had their tab picked up for travel, meals and lodging at a Hard Rock Hotel in Hollywood, Fla.

The trip was filled with highlights.

Crystal Hood met actress Holly Robinson Peete (on hand to emcee a celebrity auction). "She's super-nice," Crystal reports.

Jada and her older brother, Trey, 8, got to be ballgirl and ballboy at a celebrity basketball game that included Mourning, Wade and pro hoops standouts Chris Paul and Carmelo Anthony.

On July 13, Mourning had a dinner just for the children with kidney ailments he had invited and their families.

"All the kids sort of organized themselves into a kid's table," Crystal Hood said. "When Alonzo came in, he immediately went and sat right in the middle of them."

Yet, of all the experiences from the weekend, what Dean Hood most relishes is the moment when Jada was introduced to Mourning.

The former basketball star was decked out in a three-piece suit for a formal dinner. Nevertheless, the 6-foot-9 Mourning dropped to a knee on the floor so he could speak to Jada face-to-face.

Dean Hood's voice cracks when he talks about what came next.

"Alonzo said, 'Jada, we may not look anything alike, but I had exactly the same disease you have. I beat this, and you will, too,' " the EKU football coach said.

A year ago, when the doctors first mentioned the name, how could anyone have guessed just how much encouragement Jada Hood and her family would find through Alonzo Mourning.

Reach Mark Story at (859) 231-3230 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 3230, or mstory@herald-leader.com. Your e-mail could appear on the blog Read Mark Story's E-mail at Kentucky.com.

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