Alonzo Mourning beat back a deadly disease for a chance to chase NBA championships as a member of the New Jersey Nets.
But as the veteran center sat slumped in the locker room in Philadelphia fuming over the Nets' loss to the 76ers last week, he lamented the club's waning prospects. As Mourning sees it, new management began trading away some of New Jersey's best players over the summer, and the once high-octane, high-flying Nets, Eastern Conference champions two of the past three seasons, were stripped for parts and junked. They come into tonight's home game against the Wizards at 2-6, making fans remember all too vividly their struggles in the mid-1990s or earlier, when they were a perennial NBA afterthought to the Knicks in the New York metropolitan area.
"We're missing K-Mart [Kenyon Martin]," growled Mourning as he cut away the bandages that swaddled his toes and pitched them to the ground following a 108-100 loss to the 76ers. "We're missing Kerry Kittles. We're missing a whole lot."
Under the ownership of Bruce Ratner, the New York real estate mogul who paid $300 million for the Nets in August, the club traded all-star forward Martin to Denver, shooting guard Kittles to the Los Angeles Clippers and bid farewell to key reserves Lucious Harris and Rodney Rodgers.
The aftermath has the team in last place in the Atlantic Division. Management has yet to replace Martin, the Nets' top defender and rebounder, with a comparable athlete. Rumors continue to flutter that all-star guard Jason Kidd, who is recovering from knee surgery and has yet to play, could be traded as soon as he is healthy.
And Mourning and Kidd have joined in the growing chorus of Nets' bashers.
"We know we're not going to win a championship this year or next year," said Kidd, airing the Nets' problems during a preseason news conference. "Not with the caliber of guys we have now."
Opponents once feared the Nets' offense, as it stormed downcourt with Kidd leading the break and feeding ally-oop passes for Martin or forward Richard Jefferson to stuff. The club is last in the league in scoring (80.9), second to last in field goal percentage (38.9) and leads in turnovers with slightly more than 20 per game.
To many New Jersey fans and NBA observers, the Nets are on the brink of revisiting their woeful past, a time when the club routinely missed the playoffs and blindly groped for answers -- such as when it forked over millions to hire wiz-kid college coach John Calipari, who went 72-112 before being fired after just two years.
Ratner and Rod Thorn, the Nets' general manager, have appealed to the public for patience. They say that the new management is committed to winning.
Dubbed "bottom-line Bruce" by New York media, Ratner has dismissed skeptics who say that trading Martin is a sign he intends to slash the club's payroll, effectively mothballing the franchise, until he can move it out of Continental Airlines Arena in East Rutherford, N.J., and into a proposed 19,000-seat facility in Brooklyn.
The arena, which would be completed under Ratner's plan sometime in 2007 or 2008, will be the centerpiece of a $2.5 billion commercial and residential complex.
Ratner and Thorn have insisted that most of the personnel moves were made to improve the club but acknowledge that they traded Martin for financial reasons.
Following a season when the 6-foot-9 Martin averaged 16.7 points and 9.5 rebounds, the Nuggets offered the power forward $83 million over six years, including a significant signing bonus. Matching the offer would have cost the Nets $50 million this year in salary and luxury tax penalties.
Instead, the club swapped Martin for three future first-round picks. That the Nets failed to obtain any players who could help the team now left some believing that winning was not its first priority.
Retaining the 6-4 Kidd, fourth all-time in assists average (9.4), could go a long way to proving that Ratner is intent on winning in the short term.
Thorn questions why Kidd and Mourning would show so little loyalty to the club that pays Kidd his $105 million salary and signed Mourning to a $22.6 million deal last year despite knowing his ailing kidneys made him a financial risk.
Doctors diagnosed Mourning three years ago with focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, a rare disease that prevented his kidneys from filtering blood of impurities. Mourning underwent a successful kidney transplant last December.
Asked last week whether he thought Mourning and Kidd owed anything to the franchise, Thorn responded: "Obviously, they don't think so.
"What you can't do is allow players to say they are unhappy in the press and then later say 'I want to be paid a premium,' " said Thorn. "That won't happen here."
In the unenviable position of bridging the gap between management and players and patching holes left over from the trades is Nets Coach Lawrence Frank. A round-the-clock worker, Frank is a Kidd favorite and has also earned Mourning's respect.
"We've had a rapport since Day One," said Mourning. "I respect Coach Frank for his preparation as a coach. He works his butt off to get us right."
To get things right this season, Frank is going to have to mesh the journeymen free agents such as guard Jacque Vaughn and forward Eric Williams with role players from last season, including Aaron Williams, Brian Scalabrine and Jason Collins.
"This summer was painful for everyone," said Frank, who took over for the fired Byron Scott last season and led the team to the Eastern Conference semifinals. "There's no facsimile for Kenyon Martin, but with Kidd in the mix, we'll be in a position to win every game we play."
Kidd is expected to return next month. Mourning could also play a key role in a comeback. With all the hullabaloo surrounding the club's infighting, his numbers have been largely overlooked. At 34 and with a new kidney, he's averaged 12 points and 7.5 rebounds. His 2.75 blocks per game are sixth highest in the league.
Whether Mourning, a seven-time all-star, can continue to perform at the same level is also an issue.
"My body is sore, man," said Mourning as he massaged his left forearm following the 76ers game. "If I had more hands I'd be rubbing everything."