Nothin’, Not Even Nets

by May 30, 2012


Originally published in SLAM 159

by Lang Whitaker | @langwhitaker

“Well, we knew this day was coming, and it’s finally here.”

It was Monday, April 23, and New Jersey Nets head coach Avery Johnson was addressing the media 90 minutes before his team hosted the Philadelphia 76ers. It would be the Nets final game of a forgettable season, but it was a memorable and historic night in that it would be—after 36 years—the final Nets game in New Jersey.

Johnson was in an unmemorable room in the bowels of the Prudential Center in Newark, which has been the home of the Nets for the past two seasons. The Prudential Center, aka The Rock, has been a fine, if transient, home, a state-of-the-art arena with a built-in move-out date since the Nets arrived in ’10. And after seven years of idle chatter and promises that at times seemed empty, the Nets’ time in Jersey was about to run out.

The Nets have marketed the idea that they’re on their way to building something big—as Johnson noted, “We knew this was a product that we need to grow, and was going to take some time, and we’re still growing this product.” Perhaps a clearer future will emerge in Brooklyn, because as Jersey sports fans have watched over the last three decades, the Nets have mostly dwelled in a murky present. As Dave D’Alessandro wrote in the Newark Star-Ledger: “Make no mistake, some extraordinary athletes passed through here—brilliant players such as Jason Kidd, Buck Williams and Drazen Petrovic, who all led some inspiring Playoff runs—but rarely has a sports franchise presented such a rigid challenge to your loyalty, your patience and your precepts about fair play, sound management and dumb luck.”

The Nets franchise was started in the late ’60s as an original ABA team. They were supposed to be based in Manhattan, to compete with the Knicks, but as has happened to many home shoppers, they couldn’t find suitable real estate and instead found space in the ’burbs. They landed in Jersey, then moved to Long Island, where the Nets won two ABA championships with Julius Erving during the ’70s. The Nets were one of four ABA franchises to join the NBA when the leagues merged in 1976, and the cash-strapped team marked the occasion by selling Dr. J to the Sixers to help make ends meet.

In ’77, the Nets moved back to Jersey and set up shop at Rutgers, and in ’81 they moved into the brand-new Brendan Byrne Arena, which would become their home—under a variety of different corporate names—for the next 30 years. Under Larry Brown they put together their first NBA winning season in ’81-82. Brown was fired at Newark Airport during the next season when the Nets discovered he’d secretly talked to Kansas about their coaching job. In ’83-84, the Nets made the Eastern Conference Semis, but would not make it past the first round again for nearly two more decades. In ’86, their All-Star guard Micheal Ray Richardson became the first player banned for life for violating the League’s drug policy; two other Nets would be suspended for drugs the next season. Their magnetic center, Darryl Dawkins, had his career cut short after injuring his back when he slipped in the shower. In ’87, the Nets drafted Dennis Hopson just ahead of Scottie Pippen and Reggie Miller. In the early ’90s, the Nets put together a fresh and invigorating team, centered around Kenny Anderson,  Derrick Coleman, and an electrifying guard from Europe named Drazen Petrovic.

“Drazen comes, Kenny comes, I’m rebounding,” Coleman remembers. “I thought the team that we had and where we were going, it changed the whole Nets franchise.”

That excitement was tragically snuffed out in the summer of ’93, when Petrovic was killed in a car accident in Germany. “When that happened, it kind of turned the organization back a few years, maybe even longer than that,” Anderson says. “I just thought we was right there, we was on the cusp. Even though it was the Chicago Bulls/Michael Jordan era, we could have competed.

“I think that was the problem with the Nets: They always settled for mediocrity,” KA continues. “They didn’t want to bring in a big-time coach. We joke around, me and Derrick, you know we used to practice at APA Trucking facility. You know, had to share a locker next to a trucking guy.”

The team was popular enough at the time—or at least, good enough at stuffing ballot boxes—that DC and Chibbs were both voted to start in the ’94 All-Star Game. Yet less than a year later, the situation was toxic enough that Nets forward Chris Morris asked to leave Jersey by writing TRADE ME on his sneaker. (He tempered the expression somewhat by writing PLEASE on the other shoe.)

In the late ’90s, the Nets found relevancy again, with an exciting team anchored by Sam Cassell and Jayson Williams that warranted the cover of SLAM 25 in ’98. Just as quickly, Williams was forced to retire due to injury, and Cassell was involved in a three-team trade for Stephon Marbury. In 2000, the Nets drafted Kenyon Martin and hired Byron Scott to coach, and appeared again to have one of the most exciting young cores in the NBA. I wrote the SLAM 48 cover story on Starbury, and he told me at the time, “I just want to win. I’m not worrying about the All-Star Game, nothing. All I want to do is win. Because if we win, I know we’re playing well.”

They only won 28 games, and when the season ended, GM Rod Thorn traded Marbury to Phoenix for Jason Kidd. Before long, the Nets were pushing the ball in transition and playing a Princeton-style halfcourt offense, and they covered SLAM again during the ’01-02 season.

“Jason Kidd, being backcourt mates with him for three years, that was a phenomenal experience,” says former Nets wingman Kerry Kittles. “It was fantastic.”

From 2001-10, the Nets finally made up some ground on their cross-river rivals. The Knicks didn’t win a single Playoff game during that stretch while the Nets had six straight winning seasons and made two trips to the Finals. But even with success and a fun brand of play, being a Nets fan was no easy task. While most NBA franchises built shiny new hoops palaces, the Nets’ arena, sitting forlornly in the hard-to-reach Meadowlands of East Rutherford, just got new names. Former SLAM Editor-in-Chief Russ Bengtson once said that Brendan Byrne/Continental/Izod had the same vibe as the inside of a refrigerator.

In ’04, the Nets were sold, and the new ownership group, a partnership including Jay-Z, announced plans to move the franchise to Brooklyn. Yet the economic downturn soon after made the move seem less certain. The Nets devolved to the point that they began the ’09-10 season with 18 consecutive losses and finished with a record of 12-70.

As the Nets moved to Newark in the summer of ’10, they finally caught a break. A controlling interest was sold to Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, a man who could realistically be confused for the most interesting man in the world. The Nets would be moving to the long-gestating arena in Brooklyn, and Prokhorov promised big things, saying he was, “pretty sure I can convince the best of the best the Nets is where they need to be. Add team spirit. Little bit luck, little bit money, we go straight to top.”

Yet with the move to Brooklyn looming, despite public flirtations with the likes of Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony, the Nets had leveraged several Draft picks into just one superstar, Deron Williams, and he has not committed to the team long-term.

Their future may have been in doubt, but for the game against Philly, the focus was squarely on the past. The halftime show featured many former Nets, from Richardson to Dawkins, Anderson to Coleman, Kittles to Todd MacCulloch. The fans in attendance were vocal in their support of the home team, as though they honestly hoped to see the Nets win. When the Nets cut Philly’s lead to 8 on a Johan Petro 18-footer with 5:30 remaining, the Nets players exploded off the bench and the crowd rose to its feet. Yet, as has happened many times over the last 36 years, the Nets just didn’t have enough to get the W. As MarShon Brooks said: “It would have been nice to go out with a win. We fought hard, we fought back, we didn’t let the game get out of hand, it’s just, we can’t get over the hump.”

“[The move] might help, better attendance,” posited Anderson. “I think the bad thing about this, even when we had good teams, they didn’t sell out. Even when they went to the Finals.  Now they’re gonna be in Brooklyn with mass transit, they’re gonna have a lot of walk-ups. I guess New Jersey is a basketball state somewhat, but New York is New York. We had some good teams and we never could climb the Knicks because of the tradition.”

So the Nets find themselves, after 36 years, moving about 15 miles east and finding a clean slate. Will this move make the difference the franchise has been longing for forever? Only time will tell. After all, if there’s anything we’ve learned from the Nets, it’s that anything can happen.