EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- They had gone to extraordinary lengths to eliminate the bitching and moaning out of a losing locker room, Rod Thorn and Byron Scott refusing to let the self-absorbed, self-destructive diatribes of malcontents hold hostage this forlorn franchise. And across a most magical season a year ago, they had unburdened themselves with that old disease of me with a melody of basketball music sounding so sweet after years and years of such sourness: All for one, all for the Nets.
So, the Nets coach disdained the fact that, upon gathering his players within the team's traditional locker room circle on the eve of Game 3 in this Eastern Conference playoff series against the Bucks, he had to tell his players: Stop the crying over minutes. Stop thinking about yourself over the team. The Nets coach insisted it wasn't directed to Dikembe Mutombo, but this was directed to Dikembe Mutombo.
"I was getting a little upset listening to the stuff being said," Scott said.
This was all about Mutombo, the way Mutombo has been all about Mutombo this season for the Nets. He was angry starting the season at center when Scott promised to pace him for a long season with minimal minutes. He was angry tearing ligaments and missing 56 games, and angriest of all returning late in the year to find out his starting job was gone for good. When the playoffs started, his minutes haven't returned.
For now, it has made Mutombo a lost soul in the defending Eastern Conference champions' locker room. He's confused. He's hurting. Mutombo, 7-foot-2 of arms and elbows, is a forgotten man on the Nets' bench, an ex-All-Star buried behind Jason Collins and Aaron Williams. He played five minutes in the Game 3 victory over the Bucks, and in the Game 4 loss, Mutombo stood outside his locker and declared, "History has been made." For the first time his career, Mutombo had a "DNP-CD" next to his name in the box score.
Maybe they'll need him in these playoffs, but he's of little use now. And it's killing him. Absolutely killing him. Mutombo is so stubborn, so prideful, he can't believe he's been relegated to this role. And yet, the bottom line is this: He's rapidly aged. He's moving like an old man. He can still re-direct and block shots and still grab the ball off the boards, but these Bucks don't come to the rim. They stand outside and shoot, and shoot and shoot and shoot. All of them.
"It hurts Deke because they don't have Ervin Johnson on the floor for 20 minutes, or (Joel) Przybilla on the floor for 20 minutes," Scott said. "They have Tim Thomas at (center), and (Toni) Kukoc at (center), and you've got to put on them a guy who can guard on the perimeter."
And as impatient as Nets officials had been with his complaining for minutes -- he's softened in the past few days -- they've tried to be understanding. They've tried to appreciate Mutombo's anguish, his angst. One moment, Mutombo was talking on the telephone with his older brother, and the next, he was getting word out of the Congo that Selu had collapsed and died of an aneurysm at 40. Since New Year's Day, his sister had brain surgery, a younger brother had been hurt in a serious car crash and finally there was that awful news about Selu.
From the top of the Nets' organization to the locker room, no one wants to come down on Mutombo for moaning over his slashed minutes on the basketball court. And he's stopped doing it the past few days, too. What's more, they understand Mutombo has one of the biggest, most generous hearts in professional sports. Truth be told, they've tried to be supportive. As one influential member of the organization says, "We may not need him in this series, but against other teams, we're going to need him. We've got to keep him ready. (But) he's hurting right now."
For the first time, his coach is rejecting Mutombo, the way he did all those shots all those years. And if Mutombo thinks the solution is demanding a trade this summer -- which he's suggested as a possibility -- he'll find out fast then what Thorn understands now: Nobody will want Mutombo and the final two years of a contract paying him $37.5 million. There is no market for Mutombo, the way there was with the Nets in the Keith Van Horn-Todd MacCulloch trade last summer.
Maybe they'll need him in these playoffs. And maybe, they'll never need him again. Maybe this is his fate for his final days in the NBA. Whatever the case, New Jersey had grown tired of listening to him fight it. These aren't the old Nets, the old days. They wouldn't let this be all about Dikembe Mutombo. As Rod Thorn and Byron Scott understand, they've come too far to let it.
Adrian Wojnarowski, who's a columnist for The Record (N.J.), is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj@aol.com.