At a time when you really have to strain to find an upbeat news dispatch from the NBA, Monday's bulletin out of New Jersey was maybe the most disheartening development of the season.
No one, not even the Nets, realistically expected Alonzo Mourning to last until the end of his new four-year, $22.6 million contract. Yet the Nets have been cautiously optimistic about getting a good season or two from Mourning, or at least a good playoff run or two. That was until Monday, when the Nets learned that 'Zo will have to retire from the game for good after his latest comeback from kidney disease worsened his condition faster than anyone imagined.
It's a sad, cruel ending for an earnest competitor like Mourning and another crushing blow for a franchise that can't seem to avoid them, even after two seasons of prosperity. The Nets were already struggling to play through the uncertainty surrounding the proposed sale of the team and Jason Kidd's own health woes, putting immediate pressure on Byron Scott in the final year of Scott's coaching contract. The only fight seen so far from the 5-7 Nets came last Thursday, when Mourning and Kenyon Martin scuffled at practice after a nasty back-and-forth exchange.
Now the Nets are confronted with the sudden departure of the marquee newcomer who was supposed to provide the interior presence New Jersey has sorely lacked in its back-to-back NBA Finals appearances. The Nets' history of tragedies and disappointments -- be it the fatal car crash that claimed the life of Drazen Petrovic or the shattered leg that forced Jayson Williams' retirement -- doesn't make them any more ready to handle 'Zo's exit.
The following question-and-answer session addresses several team- and 'Zo-related topics stemming from Monday's announcement:
Q: Were there any signs that Mourning's comeback would come to a sudden halt after just 12 games?
A: The only real surprise element here is that Mourning's health issues were so serious so early in the season. Fact is he really hasn't looked good since the season started, and Mourning's limited statistical production was only one source of concern. Despite occasional glimpses of his old ferocity -- a couple of big dunks and a 15-point farewell Saturday against Toronto in his best game as a Net -- Mourning was averaging just 2.3 rebounds and 0.5 blocks in 17.9 minutes per game off the bench. Worse yet, video evidence confirms that Mourning couldn't maintain his balance in traffic or get lift off the floor when taking a hit ... basically that he wasn't rebounding or scoring whenever he absorbed any contact. Those were always strengths in Mourning's game and not being able to cope with physicality, even in spot minutes, was a clear indication that something was wrong.
Q: Are the Nets obligated to pay Mourning the full $22.6 million on his contract?
A: Yes. If you'll recall, when Mourning was negotiating with Dallas Mavericks and New Jersey in the off-season, he insisted on a fully guaranteed four-year deal without granting interested teams a physical related to his kidney condition. NBA insurance policies generally start paying teams 80 percent of a player's salary after the player misses 41 games in a row because of the same injury. Yet it is almost impossible for teams to secure insurance for pre-existing medical conditions like Mourning's. Meaning the Nets would have had few options beyond paying extra (and highly expensive) premiums to secure the added insurance required to cover another kidney failure, since Mourning was suffering from focal segmental glomerulosclerosis long before signing with the Nets.
Q: Is there any scenario where the Nets' financial loss could be reduced?
A: The circumstances here are unique, but Mourning is entitled, if he chooses, to waive the salary protection on part or all of his Nets contract. This would "unguarantee" whatever amount Mourning agreed to, but it is not yet known if Mourning is willing to forfeit any portion of the deal. Far-fetched as it sounds, it's not inconceivable that a player in Mourning's position would volunteer not to collect the full amount, on the premise that he was physically unable to complete even one of the four seasons on the deal. If Mourning does wind up collecting the full $22.6 million, New Jersey will have paid him more than $1.9 million per game.
Q: If the Nets wind up paying the full amount, or close to it, was signing 'Zo worth the risk?
A: Nets president Rod Thorn didn't deny Monday that the Mourning signing was "a risk right from the start." That said, if making a $22.6 million guarantee to Mourning for just 12 games was the clincher that enabled the Nets to re-sign Kidd, as is it appeared when Kidd and Mourning committed to go to Jersey on the same day back in July, then yes. The risk and investment was worth it. Even though Kidd has been struggling with ankle and knee trouble since the summer, the Nets simply couldn't afford to lose him in free agency ... if they hoped to remain a viable NBA franchise.
Q: Where do the Nets go from here?
A: They're literally about to begin a five-game road trip out West. Figuratively, the road ahead doesn't look much more inviting, given Kidd's health woes and the Nets' lackluster start under a potential lame-duck in Scott, who has no assurances he'll still have a job by the end of the Nets' forthcoming trip, much less the end of the season. Mourning's departure, preceded by Dikembe Mutombo's release, also means the Nets are thinner than ever at center, while they still lack a dependable outside shooter. At this point, Thorn and Scott have to selfishly hope that Mourning's retirement somehow becomes a rallying point for a club beset by bickering and chemistry issues. Perhaps the Nets will finally start showing some unity, extending to Scott, in the wake of a tragedy.
Q: What will Mourning have to do to get a new kidney?
A: Once it's determined that a kidney transplant is Mourning's only option, he will undergo more tests to determine the best match based on six criteria. That's according to Dana Shires, founder and CEO of Lifelink Foundation, which annually performs 200 kidney transplants. Mourning would then either need a family member to donate a matching kidney or submit his name to a nationwide waiting list. At present, there are an estimated 55,000 patients on that list, which means Mourning would face an expected waiting time of at least one year. Shires, however, said that Mourning can survive for a lengthy period on dialysis without getting a new kidney.