Back in April 1998, Tony Gervino predicted the Nets would win a title in 2001. He said a starting rotation of Sam Cassell, Kerry Kittles, Keith Van Horn, Jayson Williams and Kendall Gill would bring home gold. The following season they started off horrendously, and before you knew it, Cassell was replaced with Stephon Marbury and Coach Calipari was fired. Fast-forward three seasons to 2002, when new GM Rod Thorn exiles Marbury and brings in Jason Kidd. All of a sudden, the Nets finish the regular season with a 52-30 record and a trip to the Finals. However, like Indiana and Philly before them, they ran into the Shaq/Kobe Lakers. They were swept in four. Their second attempt the following season ended as the first one had, with a 4-2 Finals loss to the Spurs. Then came Vince Carter and the rest is history. Currently, the Nets are winless. So, relive actual Nets glory and check out Gervino’s “almost” prediction of a ’98 Nets team who had people foaming at the mouth for a championship.—Ed.
The first time the Nets were ever eliminated from the playoffs, they had the circus to blame. Then called the “Americans,” New Jersey finished the 1967 season with a 36-42 record. That mark tied the Kentucky Colonels for the fourth and final playoff spot. To break the tie, the Americans would host a one-game playoff. The problem was that their home arena, then the Teaneck Armory, was booked. The circus was in town. So owner Arthur Brown scrambled to find another court, eventually deciding on Commack Arena on Long Island. When the teams arrived for the game, they found loose floorboards, unscrewed bolts and unpadded basket stanchions. Kentucky refused to play, and ABA commissioner George Mikan ruled the game a forfeit in favor of the Colonels. New Jersey’s first taste of playoff action ended without so much as a jump ball.—Nets ’97-98 media guide, pg. 89
In life, there are exhilarating high points—and then there are excruciating low points. Losing your first playoff game to the bearded lady and Jo-Jo the dog-faced boy. Low point. Winning the ’76 ABA championship. High point. Selling the Doctor immediately afterward because he wanted a fair wage. Low point. You get the idea.
If you get lucky, the high points greatly outnumber the low ones. The New Jersey Nets franchise has not had such good fortune, and therein lies the basis for this tale of perseverance and eventual redemption. For theirs is a history fraught with poor drafts, poor trades, poor free agent signings, poor coaching and poor play—all the basic food groups necessary for perennial cellar-dwelling and laughingstock emeritus status. The best you could have said about the Nets teams of the past 20 years is that maybe a couple of them in the early-to-mid ’90’s flirted with respectability. The rest sucked.
So then, is it a bit deranged to think the New Jersey Nets will win a title before the 2001-’02 season? Not at all, for the simple reason that the Nets have been compiling a pretty sweet little team while we were busy ignoring them. They got themselves a real coach and some real players who more often than not play real well.
Indeed, savvy trading and drafting from GM John Nash and head coach/executive John Calipari have brought in players such as Sam Cassell, Keith Van Horn, Kerry Kittles, Chris Gatling, Lucious Harris and Michael Cage. Free agent scoop-ups include Sherman Douglas, David Benoit and Xavier McDaniel (because, after all, you never know when you may need to really, really hurt someone).
And in watching them play for half a season, we’ve come to one big, fat conclusion: This is not the same old New Jersey Nets, they of Chris Morris’ untied shoelaces and Derrick Coleman’s whoop-de-damn-do. Of Bill Fitch and his Chibbs vendetta. And Paul Silas’ head coaching snub. Yes, Yinka Dare is still in his usual seat on the bench every game, warm-ups firmly in place, an all-too-well-paid ghost of the Nets’ horrid past. But the days of players who showed up expecting to lose, get paid and go home?
“It ain’t that way no more baby!,” says point guard Sam Cassell. “It ain’t that way no more!”
Sam’s right, this is a whole new team. This is a team that goes for the throat and doesn’t let go. One that refuses to fold in tough situations. One filled with winners like center-in-a-power-forward’s-body Jayson Williams, who was averaging 12.9 ppg and 13.8 rpg in late January. And small forward Kendall Gill, blistered as a malcontent in Seattle and Charlotte, playing out of position yet quietly providing 15.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg and veteran leadership. Don’t forget rookie sensation Van Horn, also playing out of position as a 6-10, 230-pound power forward and dropping 19.9 ppg and 6.1 rpg against bigger, stronger veterans. Or Cassell the well-traveled point guard, who’s averaging 19.6 ppg and 8.0 apg, shooting like his initials were MJ and keeping the team loose. Not to mention second-year two-guard Kittles and his 16.0 ppg and 4.5 rpg. One to five, probably one of the best in the entire NBA, if not the best. And damned if other teams can figure out what to do with ’em.
“Things are different than they used to be,” says Gill. “We’ve got guys flying, dunking the basketball, shooting three pointers, Jayson rebounding like crazy, us running up and down trapping. That’s the kind of basketball you want to see. We play that way, and I know I would want to watch that type of basketball.”
Adds Kittles: “Teams know we can beat them now. Last year, we’d come out and play so hard for three quarters and other teams would be playing lackadaisically. Then in the fourth, the other team would decide to play, and we wouldn’t have anything left. Now teams are playing hard from the beginning.”
Yet on many nights, even that commitment won’t make a difference. On January 23, the Nets record stood at 23-17. Last season, they won 26-all year. And the way they’re winning games is the thing too; they’re coast-to-coasting it on some of the NBA’s elite. They’re making it look easy, and while they’re learning to play together, they’re making it look fun.
So how exactly did this happen?
“There’s two things,” says Calipari. “We have much better talent than we had before. But talent alone won’t win—we’ve got a great locker room. And I’ll go right down the line when I say that. We have a guy like Kendall Gill, who averaged 21 a game last year, who’s willing to average 14 or 15 a game so we win more. Keith Van Horn is as unselfish as a player comes, and these guys have respected him and accepted him quickly because he’s such a good guy. And Kerry Kittles—value-based, he’s one of the great human beings in this world…”
Now might be a good time for you to run and get something to drink. We may be here a while. Coach, please continue:
“…Jayson Williams has accepted playing center and scoring less to help us win. And it goes right down the line. Sherm Douglas, who could start for a lot of teams comes here and is our backup, plays great, then goes in the newspaper and says, ‘I’m a backup, Sam’s the starter’. We just have a great locker room. And I really believe that—when I was in college, I did it this way—that you win with good people. And if you have to sacrifice some talent to make sure you get good guys, you always do it. Those guys will win more than a talented team that doesn’t get along.”
One look at the way this five-headed monster has begun to disassemble opponents will tell you that. They whip the ball around the perimeter until someone’s open—really open—before shooting. They pick each other up on defense (well, they’re getting better at that.) They set picks. They hit their free throws, and even though they’re an undersized lineup, they bang the offensive boards. You step to one of them, you step to all of them. Their closeness, within the realm of basketball and beyond, is a true rarity in professional sports. From one to 12, the squad seems more like brothers than teammates, and their general concern for each other’s well-being gives them carte blanche to climb all over each other when it’s warranted—with no hard feelings.
“It’s a great team to be around,” says Gill. “At practice, on the plane and in the locker room. Everybody gets along, and that’s one of the key components you have to have in order to be a good team. And we have that.”
“Kendall, I need you tomorrow. It’s a very important game. Make sure the guys know that. Let them know how bad we need it.”
Sometimes you just overhear a private conversation. It’s not that you’re eavesdropping or anything. It’s just that, occasionally, you might be minding your own business, you know, just standing around, and you overhear something that you probably weren’t meant to hear. An accident. Oops.
This, however, was not one of those times.
At one end of the practice gym, four of the Nets starting five are getting their photos taken. They’re blowing off a little steam by alternately teasing the injured Cassell for having to drag his ass in on an off-day for a stupid photo shoot (“Don’t go OJ on [the photographers],” Williams warns. Sammy just laughs.) and ripping on Keith Van Horn for….well, for just being Keith Van Horn. (One of Keith’s nicknames is “GC” which stands for, you guessed it, Golden Child.) Across the gym floor, Gill is having a private conversation with Calipari. At least in theory.
It’s 31 hours before the Los Angeles Clippers-the worst, most inept franchise in the history of pro sports-come to town, and Cal knows his team will be beaten. He just knows it, although he’s not saying it aloud. It’s the way it’s been going this season—two steps up, one back. A spirited win at home versus the hated big-brother New York Knicks on January 2nd. And then a one-point loss five days later at the Garden—after running off a 20-0 stretch in the second quarter, then squandering a 15-point second-half lead through an astonishing mix of swagger and carelessness.
And so, while the photographer is selling the Nets players on looking game-ready, Coach Calipari is hoping to sell Gill on his sense of impending doom. The Clips, Coach knows, will be trying to suck his squad down to their level of play, and in the past, that’s been a very short trip for the Nets. Gill nods his head and agrees to talk to the fellas who, about 25 feet away, are busy shooting baskets while the photography equipment sets an immoveable pick.
Whatever KG said, it didn’t take, for the Clippers crawled into the Continental Airlines Arena and took the game to the Nets, clawing their way to a 119-116 win. By halftime, Coach Cal’s face shifted from disgusted to helpless to super-angry and back to disgusted. Afterward, he lit into the team for their lack of defensive intensity and poor shot selection. It was the current Nets at their very worst.
Three nights later, it was a different scene altogether. Against one of the NBA’s elite, the Atlanta Hawks, the Nets ground out a 97-81 win on the defensive end, trapping and double-teaming. And hustling. Jayson Williams scored 15 points and snared 23 rebounds; Van Horn chipped in 23; Kittles, 19; Gill, 18, and Douglas, 17 points and 10 assists.
Most importantly, it sent a message to the Clippers that they have to look elsewhere for bottom-of-the-barrel companionship. “We let the Clippers game slip away,” a relieved Kendall Gill told The New York Post. “We had to send a message we weren’t on their same level.”
And that’s the struggle the ’98 Nets face—trying to minimize their growing pains while salving their impatience and occasional frustration with the knowledge that the race to success in the NBA is a marathon and not a sprint. For the first time in a long time, it feels good to be a Nets player, and it feels good to be a Nets fan. (And not just because of those dope new uniforms.)
“When you’re winning, everything’s a lot easier,” says Williams. “We’re winning now, so everything’s going smooth.”
Indeed, the days when the Nets were a walkover in the schedule are like the ’98-99 Chicago Bulls—over. And within the next three seasons this nucleus of budding superheroes will continue to grow and mature, and when they add a true center-a real seven-footer- and perhaps another post-up threat, the title will be theirs for the taking. And they will. Take it, that is. And Spike Lee will roll over in his grave, and he’s not even dead.
Additional reporting by Ben Osborne