EAST RUTHERFORD,N.J. — EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- Kurk Lee pushed through the door 90 minutes before tip-off and crossed the locker room to the stall with his name printed above it. To his right was Derrick Coleman, the first player picked in the 1990 draft. To his left was Mookie Blaylock, one of the first dozen picks in the 1989 draft. Down the aisle was Sam Bowie. Across the room was Reggie Theus.
The New Jersey Nets may be down near the bottom of the NBA pile, but their names still give off a star's shine, and the accomplishment of earning one of their uniforms is no less mighty. "I haven't had time to let it soak in," Lee said, as he dressed for his fourth pro game, "but it feels fantastic to be here."
He wasn't supposed to be. He was the best player in Towson State history, led the Tigers to the NCAA tournament last spring, but that and a penny are worth a penny to an NBA scout, and his name went unmentioned on draft day. "Pretty disappointing," Lee said. The harsh reality was that he would get his chance to crack the NBA as a free agent, a 100-1 shot.
The easy out would have been to shrink away, let the guaranteed contracts work their magic, get swept away in the tide of improbability. But Lee has always had an unwavering confidence, the kind that left his coaches shaking their heads, that told him the next shot always was going in. So he cashed in every ounce of it, took it to training camp and . . .
" . . . made this team the old-fashioned way, earning it," Nets coach Bill Fitch said. "He was the No. 1 hustler in camp, the No. 1 worker, the No. 1 winner in intrasquad games. He was terrific. He came in a free agent, but from Day One he was a factor in making the team. In the end, there was just too much about him to like."
In the end, largely because of Lee, the Nets kept five guards instead of the usual four. "I noticed that guys kept disappearing in the middle of practice on that last cut-down day," Lee said. "I just kept hoping coach didn't come over wanting to talk to me. Finally, [first-round pick] Tate George said, 'Hey, do you realize there's no cuts left to make?' He gave me a hug."
His struggle isn't over, far from it -- another player will have to go when veteran forward Roy Hinson comes off the injury list, and Fitch is offering the kind of ominous endorsement you hate to hear. "If Kurk doesn't make it, it won't be because anyone worked harder," he said. That doesn't sound good. Fifth guards often are in trouble at such moments.
Still, there is a chance the Nets will cut a forward to keep a forward, and hey, Lee isn't just sitting. He was the first point guard off the bench in the first three games, his assignment being to push the ball up the floor quickly. He didn't play until the final seconds against Miami on Thursday night, but Fitch said: "There were a couple of times I should have used him. He's effective."
Lee, who is living in a hotel across the street from the arena, said, "If you think about [the next cut], you really mess yourself up. I've had nothing but a positive attitude from the beginning. I was in a tough spot -- a lot of guys with guaranteed contracts at my position -- and I made it. I'm not going to do anything differently than I've been doing."
No matter what happens, he has put his name in play now in the biggest arena, opened some hard-to-open eyes, risen from being just another free agent to a player worth reckoning. It has been quite a journey. "My first NBA game," he said, smiling at the memory. "Indianapolis. I was real nervous.Real, real nervous. I thought the ball felt slippery. It wasn't the ball."
It was just three years ago that he was transferring from Western Kentucky, unhappy about his role. The best player on one of Bob Wade's last great Dunbar teams, he wound up back in Baltimore, at Towson State, a big fish in a small pond, so superior that he played inside, with his back to the basket, even though he is only 6 feet tall.
He hadn't played point guard in three years -- he worked on his ball-handling with Muggsy Bogues last summer -- when he went to the San Antonio Spurs' rookie camp in June, and from there to the Los Angeles summer league. He was about to sign with the Spurs when they signed David Rivers. Then the Nets called, and he wound up chasing Blaylock through training camp.
"I'd never heard of him," said Blaylock from Oklahoma, now in his second year.
But Mook, what about that Towson-Oklahoma game last year? Didn't you see him almost put your old team out of the NCAA tournament?
"Oh yeah, I saw him there. But I'd never heard of him otherwise. He's a good player, though."
Lee's roommate during camp was Tate George, the rookie from Connecticut. "Every day Kurk would ask me how I thought he was doing," George said, "and I'd tell him, 'Kurk, you're doing great, you're doing great.' "
Indeed, he was. You have to understand what a long shot this is. There are few places for 6-footers in the NBA, much less 6-foot free agents. Ninety-nine out of 100 are preseason fodder. Not Kurk Lee.
"Deep down in my heart, I always knew I could play with the big names," he said. "I wasn't nervous or intimidated. I didn't have anything to lose. I guess it couldn't have worked out better."