By Jason Keidel
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If a team loses loads of their 3,000 games and no one hears it, did they make a sound? Does winning just 42 percent of your games since you hopped the Hudson have any physical or metaphysical properties? We can't be sure.
That's how it's been for the bulk of 35 years for the New Jersey Nets, who went 1,186-1,634 and never had an identity while they toiled in the frigid marsh of North Jersey, and will move to Brooklyn next year hoping to find one.
Their final game in New Jersey on Monday was typically inept, losing by 18 to the rather mediocre 76ers. You can argue that Philly had more to play for, but try that logic on someone who actually had the loyalty, patience and endurance to sit through those endless, black and bitter nights, months and years as a Nets season-ticket holder. Didn't the Nets owe him just one win? Doesn't anyone give a damn?
Has any sendoff in our history ever been more muted? The Yankees move across the street and we get a montage of American royalty, from Yogi Berra to Whitey Ford, Don Mattingly, Dave Winfield and Reggie Jackson. Even the Mets, who slithered out of the crumbling Shea crucible -- just to move a few yards away -- got Ron Darling, Doc and Darryl, Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Mike Piazza and Tom Seaver.
When the Nets move to another region, we get Kerry Kittles. I've seen bodegas liquidated with more fanfare.
Just look at their starting lineup on Monday: Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries-Kardashian, Jordan Williams, Sundiata Gaines and MarShon Brooks.
That's how the Nets (22-43) roll these days. It's a microcosm of a middling franchise that never struck gold in the swamp the way several of their neighbors did, like the Giants, Devils and, on a smaller scale, the Jets.
New Jersey governor Chris Christie gave a tearful farewell to the Nets this week. "Good riddance," he declared in deadpan, before saying he won't beg the team to stay. You half expected Christie to conclude his parting shot with, "Leave the gun, take the cannoli."
And then the governor actually referred to Newark as one of "America's vibrant cities." The governor clearly hasn't strolled down Frelinghuysen Avenue lately and browsed the local commerce, a conga line of hookers, hoppers and heroin salesmen.
The announced crowd in Newark was over 18,000, but there were swaths of empty seats. So it's clear that fans don't care. The media doesn't care. The Nets don't care. You don't care.
Why should I care?
Because any time a pro team spends 35 years in our region, their existence should at least be acknowledged, even if they go down as John Doe in the sports mortuary.
Carl Banks – yes, that Carl Banks – called me a hater yesterday. And he's right. My specialty is a sports drink called Carmelo Haterade. Guys often ask me why I'm so hard on the Knicks, often with a cynical or vitriolic voice, as though I were treacherous, treasonous, or both. Loving the Knicks is a five-borough birthright, bleeding orange and blue as natural as riding the subway.
And I did. I was born two or so years too late to absorb the halcyon years, but was still weaned on the back-end of Red Holzman's career. My dad schooled me on stories about Clyde and Pearl, of Reed, Bradley and DeBusschere. Then once I got a little hair on my chin and chest I fell deeply in love with Hubie Brown's club, from Rory Sparrow to Marvin Webster to Bill Cartwright to Truck Robinson and Bernard King.
I joined the collective cartwheel after the Ewing lottery and loved to watch Mark Jackson make magic his rookie season out of St. John's. Indeed, the entire city braced for the conveyor belt of O'Brien Trophies coming our way. Sadly, Larry, Magic and Michael had other ideas. The Knicks peaked with Pat Riley, who turned Showtime into Slowtime, rolling up his sleeves and whipping his Knicks into cardio machines, convincing them and us that we could simply will ourselves to win. And we almost did, coming within a whisker (and a few John Starks bricks) of an NBA title.
Jeff Van Gundy took the aging vehicle and kept it running relatively well, leading the Knicks on a rather unexpected drive to the NBA Finals in 1999. Not coincidentally, that was the last time the Knicks dominated, as that was also the year Jim Dolan was given the keys to (and total autonomy over) MSG. That's when a few of us fled the Mothership. Call it a premonition, prescience, or prudence, but I jumped off the bandwagon the moment I heard a rich kid stole daddy's remote control to the World's Most Famous Arena. Shortly thereafter, Van Gundy quit, and the team tanked for a decade. They haven't won a playoff series since the scrappy, leg-grabbing coach surrendered his clipboard. And I have no plans to rejoin the Knicks as long as Dolan wears the crown.
Like any newly single young man, I was looking for a rebound relationship. And there was Rod Thorn – perhaps the eternal MVP of the New Jersey Nets – offering me comfort; a safe, soft landing about 10 miles west of MSG. And in 2001 he made maybe the best trade in NBA history: Stephon Marbury to Phoenix, Jason Kidd to New Jersey.
Marbury, famous or infamous depending on the year, wound up wrecking a few franchises, dropped down from his UFO onto Bruce Beck's show, seemingly drunk, dancing, making bizarre comments and slurred overtures toward his siblings, and then fizzled out with some surreal YouTube video where he scooped gobs of Vaseline and gulped them. Perhaps it was the career arc of a Net. Marbury is now flourishing in China. Go figure.
So the Nets got really good. With Kidd, Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson, the Nets owned the Eastern Conference for a few years, earning two trips to the NBA Finals, where, sadly, they ran into two behemoths. The Nets, with a brave, bright, but seriously undersized Jason Collins at center, faced Tim Duncan in his prime one year and then Shaq the in the other. It's like battling Godzilla, rebuilding your army, only to have Ghidorah swing through 12 months later.
But the Meadowlands was a cool (if not clandestine) place from the late-'90s through, say, 2003, where on any fall day you could get some serious sports for a fraction of the price they charged in NYC. The Nets were passing the Knicks, the Devils were better than the Rangers, and East Rutherford was home to both of our NFL teams. Bill Parcells was a Jet and Jim Fassel coaxed Big Blue to a Super Bowl.
Yet the Nets have an odd place in Tri-State sports history -- none. No matter how futile the Jets, Giants, Knicks, Rangers, etc. have been at some sliver of time, they always had a pocket of diehard followers keeping them on the radar. Yet even with Kidd running a flawless fast break with gazelles on each wing, they went undervalued, underappreciated and unwatched.
The Knicks, even when ensconced in the bottomless, horrific Isiah Thomas fiefdom, were more popular than the Nets. We can't blame geography because the Jets, Giants and Devils played across the river and have remained relevant, with enough fans in the stands or watching on television to sustain their sorrowful years.
Hockey is a niche sport, even in New York, yet we manage to support three teams. And while no one doubts that we are a baseball town, we pride ourselves as a Mecca of basketball talent. Somewhere among the weeds sprouting from sidewalk cracks, we've managed to spawn a village of hardwood legends, like Lew Alcindor, Bernard King, Chris Mullin, Kenny Anderson, Walter Berry and Pearl Washington. And even as New Jersey became king of high school basketball, the newfound love never reached the Nets.
So Kidd came and left, eventually winning a most elusive and deserving ring in Dallas, riding Dirk to pay dirt last year, leaving those of us who saw Kidd as his best to wonder what could, or should, have been.
So for the last seven or so years, there the Nets were, losing as predictably and inelegantly as those industrial silos jutting from each side of the New Jersey Turnpike, like cement cigars flanking cold concrete, chugging foul air all day, every day. The Sopranos immortalized the ride in its opening credits, and the bleak landscape hasn't changed. Only the Nets are leaving.
And now the Nets take their torment to Brooklyn, where everyone expects a revival. Frankly, a new building doesn't make a new franchise. The anemic lineup I posted up top is the same group Avery Johnson is taking back across the Hudson. I think Johnson is a good coach and better person, but better coaches than he have tried to remold this moribund group and failed. Chuck Daly couldn't. Larry Brown couldn't. Bill Fitch couldn't. Avery Johnson might, but probably won't.
It's historically ironic that the Nets, a team no one wants, are taking the very space once coveted by the most beloved team NYC has ever seen, whose departure still hurts and haunts an entire borough and at least three generations of immigrants, migrants and a melting pot.
Walter O'Malley was ready to build a new ballpark on that block on his dime for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1956. The heartbeat of Brooklyn, fresh off winning their first World Series in 60 years -- and beating the detested Yankees to get there -- the Dodgers were primed to place themselves adjacent to Lady Liberty as the twin symbols of freedom, immigration and integration, securing their prerogative as the team and town that represented the most diverse area of the most diverse city, the team that broke the color barrier, the team of Branch Rickey and Jackie Robinson, in the greatest city the world will ever know.
Until Robert Moses said no. Moses, the head of 12 government agencies, had more power than Zeus in the '50s. He didn't like O'Malley, and thought baseball in general and the Brooklyn Dodgers in particular weren't worth his time. Moses was too busy trying to gut Greenwich Village with more concrete arteries to worry about the Boys of Summer. And thus came the senseless summer in the history of American municipalities. We lost the Dodgers and Giants in the same year: 1957.
Tragically, only 6,200 fans watched the Dodgers' final game at Ebbets Field. So if Brooklyn didn't care to bid a fond farewell to the heartbeat of their borough, then we can't expect much pomp and circumstance to surround the Nets.
There will be some kind of splash when the Nets arrive, full of Russian rubles, rap moguls and reminiscing. The last time the Nets lived in New York, Dr. J's outsized Afro soared over ABA rims, slamming a rainbow-painted ball through the hoop. And as with anything 1970s chic, the Nets will ride a nostalgic wave until next year's All-Star break. Then fans will actually look at their record.
One thing that never goes out of style is winning. Sadly it's a style that never suited the Nets, no matter their decade or domicile. I felt like the only person on the planet watching that game Monday night. Maybe I was.
Good luck, Nets. And thanks. Some of us actually watched you play in New Jersey, even if some wouldn't call it basketball.
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