EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- The disconnect in the New Jersey Nets' dressing room could be culled out of the reaction of Byron Scott's one word -- "scared" -- the charge that his players had played this way in a loss to the Spurs. From stall to stall, the Nets seethed, some barking back at the coach in the newspapers, some just privately snarling into the ears of teammates. Scared?
The overriding attitude of the locker room was unmistakable: Who the hell was Scott to talk about them this way?
The coach, Alonzo Mourning, snapped. He's the coach. Besides, 'Zo loved to hear Scott talk this way -- saying so himself to the rolled eyes of his younger teammates. What's more, the Nets needed to hear Scott talk this way far more frequently. Mourning was a brainwashed disciple of Pat Riley, believing unconditionally in chain of command.
Beyond the loss of a low-post presence and a tenacious defender and rebounder, beyond the loss of the fleeting chance the Nets had to prevent Shaquille O'Neal and Tim Duncan from doing uninhibited chin-ups on the rim in the NBA Finals, beyond everything, Mourning was an important ally for Scott.
The more important Mourning could've become as a player for the Nets, the stronger Scott's leverage could've been within the locker room and the organization. Now, Mourning has retired, searching now for a kidney donor. President Rod Thorn is desperately trying to cut his coach a break these days, insisting that a 5-7 record -- including five losses at home -- isn't a reflection on the coach, as much as it is a punishing rash of injuries, including Jason Kidd, whose knee is worse than he's letting on.
As the Nets started a five-game Western Conference road trip at Seattle on Tuesday, there were some fears within the organization that the clock starts on Scott now, that a winless trip out west could find the Nets returning home with someone else on the bench. Truth be told, it will take free-fall failings for Scott to be gone by Christmas, especially with a favorable December stretch of games at the Meadowlands.
Once Kidd's dissatisfaction surfaced in public with Scott over the summer and once Thorn changed his mind on a contract extension in the offseason, it was just a matter of time until the Scott Watch started with the Nets -- even if it's a prelude to a completely unjust fate: the two-time defending Eastern Conference champion coach gone before he has a chance to try a third time.
"I don't think I was trying to send a message or show anything, but that's me," Scott said. "And that's how I'm going to coach. If I got one year left -- 10 days or two hours -- I'm going to be who I am. And I'm going to say what I feel."
"I'm not going to change because I'm afraid that I'm offending some of my players."
Within the organization, the criticism of Scott had been his short hours on the job, with too little time in office and too much latitude letting his old assistant, Eddie Jordan, conduct the day-to-day business. This season, Jordan is gone to the Washington Wizards, where he's done a terrific job with the modest talent there. From the start of Nets training camp, officials and players were met with a completely different Scott. From the pregame talks to the team, to writing out the pregame plans on the locker room chalkboard, Scott has been far more intimately involved in the preparation of game plans and hands-on teaching at practice.
Within management, the term "complete control" is what they wanted to see out of Scott this season. This had to be his team, all the way. This is hard with these Nets, even harder with Mourning out of the coach's locker room and out of his life. Mourning didn't just respect the coach but "he respected the position of coach," Scott said.
Here, complete control promises to be a complete challenge.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj8@aol.com.