DALLAS -- The elevator doors opened and out rolled Dallas Mavericks forward Roy Tarpley in a wheelchair.

"I'm alive," said Tarpley, gingerly holding his right knee as he left Baylor Hospital last Thursday morning.

Alive, but not particularly well. The player the Mavericks hoped would one day carry them to the NBA Finals had to hobble to the backseat of his car on crutches.

Tarpley was released two days after undergoing surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament and lateral cartilage damage in his right knee. He appeared to be in good spirits as he talked to the media for the first time since learning he will probably spend the rest of the 1990-91 season on the injured list.

Tarpley used the word "bummer" several times to describe how he felt, but was optimistic he would be able to return if the Mavericks made the playoffs. He promised to work hard and come back stronger and thinner.

"It's going to be hard, and painful too," Tarpley said of the six months of rehabilitation awaiting him. "It's something I have to deal with. I'm not going to run away from it.

"I'm ready to meet it head on."

Tarpley injured the knee in the first quarter of a game against the Orlando Magic. He was carried off the court on a stretcher, but the initial report was that Tarpley had suffered a dislocated knee cap and would miss just three weeks.

A short time later the diagnosis was changed to say Tarpley would miss four to six weeks. When Tarpley was given anesthesia before the surgery, that's how long he thought he would be off the court.

When he regained consciousness after the surgery, Tarpley realized his situation had taken a disappointing turn.

"When I was going under, I was hoping I would be out for six weeks," Tarpley said. "When it was over, I started asking questions, and no one would tell me anything. That's when I knew I was out for the season.

"It's a bummer. It's real tough right now, to be honest. I wasn't expecting this to happen."

Tarpley said he has found himself asking, "Why me?" the last two days, but added, "I don't think it would happen to anyone else but me, the way the last few years have been going."

Tarpley has missed 100 games the last two seasons due to a series of injuries and suspensions for violations of his after-care program. Tarpley, who has two strikes under the NBA's anti-drug and alcohol policy, is one strike away from being banned from the league for at least two years.

Mavericks Coach Richie Adubato has said he's worried about Tarpley mentally during this period and believes the injury "will test his strength." Magic Johnson of the Los Angeles Lakers said, "He's fighting all of the other battles, and he doesn't need time sitting around. He needs to be around those guys to keep him away from the other things."

Norm Sonju, the Mavericks chief operating officer and general manager, said it was senseless to suggest this injury could hinder Tarpley in his battle against drugs and alcohol and refused to address the subject.

"We're taking his rehabilitation one day at a time," Sonju said of the knee. "We will know more each day. But I can tell you what I know. He has a good attitude and he's willing to work hard."

Tarpley also refused to discuss the subject.

"What's important right now is my knee, me rehabbing and getting back to the team as quickly as possible," Tarpley said. "What's happened in the past is in the past. It's mystery and history."

No program or timetable has been established for Tarpley's rehabilitation. That's expected to be formalized in the next few days. Tarpley conceded he's not ready to begin thinking about everything he must do to get the knee back in shape, but he knows he's going to have to get himself in that frame of mind soon.

"I hope I can be ready by the playoffs, maybe even sooner," Tarpley said. "It depends on how my rehab comes along.

"We're talking months. It's tough. I'm going to have to be strong and come back stronger -- and thinner."

Tarpley was 15 pounds overweight in the preseason. He was 260 pounds at the time of the injury, which was about 10 pounds more than he was at the end of last season.

Tarpley, however, refused to blame the additional weight for his injury.

"I think it was a freak accident," Tarpley said. "All of you guys saw it. I came down awkward. I don't think my extra weight had anything to do with it. It hadn't affected my play. It enhanced my play, as a matter of fact."

Tarpley said he's confident the Mavericks will play well in his absence. But he made it clear his first priority is to get the knee in shape.

"I'm a hard worker," Tarpley said. "Once I start rehabbing and lifting weights, I'll be back before you know it."