Alonzo Mourning stayed home from camp as he awaited diagnosis of
a possible kidney ailment
Pat Riley put the Heat through a series of high-intensity drills
on Sunday morning. For any other team it would have gone down as
a normal preseason workout, but for Miami it held new
significance as the team began trying to deal with the absence of
its leading player. "It was as upbeat as it could be," says
Riley, who had informed his players on Saturday that center
Alonzo Mourning was undergoing tests for an apparent kidney
disorder. "The guys are aware of Alonzo, they understand and
they're hopeful for him. At the same time, they have a job to do.
This practice was more of a purge emotionally than anything
Mourning's illness had not been diagnosed as SI went to press. In
a statement issued on Saturday, he asked that his privacy be
respected until a course of treatment is set. The team broke camp
in Boca Raton on Monday, a day earlier than planned, so Riley
could travel to Miami to meet with Mourning.
The one certainty was that Mourning was surprised to learn on
Oct. 4 that a routine preseason examination had revealed that
something was amiss. He had seemed to be in fine health while
winning a gold medal with the Dream Team in Sydney. He appeared
to be a little lethargic at the Heat's kickoff press conference,
in Boca Raton on Oct. 3, but that might have been the result of
his two round-trips to Australia. (Midway through the Games he
rushed home to see the birth of his daughter, Myka Sydney.)
Doctors spent three days investigating a number of possibilities,
including a thyroid condition, before narrowing their focus to
the kidneys. That news was partly reassuring. Hadn't Sean Elliott
recovered from a kidney transplant to return to the San Antonio
Spurs last season? "He proved you can do it," Spurs coach and
general manager Gregg Popovich said last week of the 32-year-old
Elliott, who reported to training camp in excellent shape.
Mourning's teammates wisely refused to speculate about a season
without the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year. "We
just want him to get healthy," swingman Dan Majerle said.
"Everything else is secondary."
The fact is that most of Mourning's teammates hardly know him.
Riley rebuilt the team this summer to make a run at the NBA
Finals. Of the 19 players in camp only six played with Mourning
last season. Newcomers Brian Grant, Eddie Jones and Anthony Mason
were looking forward to joining forces with the 6'10" Mourning,
who, with Patrick Ewing's trade from the Knicks to the
SuperSonics, is the only dominant center in the East.
Even if Mourning can't play this year, his team, believe it or
not, might be able to advance to the Finals. Without him there is
no outstanding club in the East. But let's hope we never find
out; let's hope Mourning recovers from this scare and, by playoff
time, is back on the court scaring everyone else.
Coughing Up for Shaq
Lakers Learn to Love Luxury Tax
Over the next week the Lakers are expected to make good on their
promise to reward Shaquille O'Neal with a four-year, $117 million
extension. Not only will this keep the league's MVP in a Los
Angeles uniform through his 35th birthday, but the Lakers hope it
will also put an end to charges that the NBA's signature
franchise is running scared from the upcoming luxury tax.
Some of those charges came from Glen Rice's agent, David Falk,
who says the Lakers broke promises on their way to dealing Rice
to the Knicks. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has publicly accused
the Lakers of going on the cheap. At an Internet conference in
L.A. on Sept. 14, Cuban jokingly referred to O'Neal as "the Big
No-Extension" and to the Lakers as "Shaq and his band of merry
minimums," drawing laughter from O'Neal and his agent, Leonard
Armato, who were also speaking at the conference.
The luxury tax is no laughing matter, however. It will make its
debut in the 2001-02 season with an estimated threshold of $57
million. Then every team must pay a tax of $1 for every dollar
above the threshold that it spends on player salaries. So far the
Knicks, Mavericks and Trail Blazers have expressed a willingness
to incur the tax; until recently Lakers owner Jerry Buss had
promised to avoid it, raising questions about L.A.'s ability to
compete. O'Neal and Kobe Bryant will earn almost $30 million this
season, but the Lakers believe they can add role players to that
nucleus and remain in contention without breaking the $57 million
barrier next year.
Buss admits that the NBA has changed since the 1980s, when he was
the one known for paying extravagant salaries. Now he is an
endangered species: a private owner who derives most of his
income from his basketball team. League sources estimate that the
Lakers' annual profits are in excess of $40 million. Buss can
afford to pay some tax, but he can't get caught up in an arms
race with Internet billionaires.
Adding fuel to the fire were reports that the Lakers were
shopping Derek Fisher, Rick Fox and Robert Horry--virtually
everyone with a multiyear contract except O'Neal and Bryant. Buss
doesn't deny it. On the contrary, he suggests it was business as
usual for a team that has turned a profit in each of the 21 years
he has owned it: "We may have the opportunity to go after a major
free agent next year or the year after, and wouldn't it be nice
to have some cap room?"
By summer's end the Lakers had filled their biggest hole by
acquiring power forward Horace Grant from the Sonics as part of
the multiteam trade involving Rice, and soon they should have
locked up O'Neal for the long term. Most important, after an
off-season of unusual criticism, Buss now says he will pay the
luxury tax if need be: "If it turns out that other people are
gaining too much of an advantage, then I'm going to have to
Around The Rim
Magic swingman Tracy McGrady says he has left several messages
for his distant relative and former teammate, Vince Carter, in
an attempt to patch up their relationship. Carter has not
returned his calls since McGrady implied in the Aug. 21 issue of
ESPN The Magazine that he felt overshadowed by Carter in
Toronto. "Vince is going by what everybody else says and not
what I have to say," says McGrady, who displays a half-dozen
photos of himself with Carter on the walls of his new Orlando
home. "But I'm not going to beg him."...
Though this is likely to be his last season, 37-year-old Hakeem
Olajuwon might play a little longer, health permitting. "I don't
want the Rockets to feel obligated to keep me," he says. He
wouldn't mind moving to--believe it or not--the Grizzlies. "I
have loved Vancouver for a long time," says the Dream....
After four months of daily sessions with Hollywood trainer
Gunnar Peterson, 7-foot center Michael Olowokandi showed up for
his third year with the Clippers at a lean 291 pounds--a
22-pound gain, all in muscle. So proud is the teacher of his
student that Peterson spent $28,500 on a pair of Clippers
courtside season tickets....
Mavericks assistant Donn Nelson, an assistant for Lithuania when
it almost beat the Dream Team at the Olympics, says he will
continue to coach that team, except against the U.S. "Sitting on
the bench, watching that game, I had serious ethical problems,"
Nelson says. "I don't want to go through that again."