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Turn Off the Lights When You’re Finished

In Basketball, Long form on April 27, 2012 at 2:26 pm

A trip to Newark for the Nets anti-climactic farewell to the State of New Jersey.

It was not the most embarrassing thing ever to happen in Newark.

The players did not remain on the court to wish a final good-bye to a half-filled Prudential Center, and, as live footage of Bruce Springsteen performing “Born to Run” flashed across the Jumbotron, what remained of the New Jersey Nets fan base didn’t stick around for them to do so.

The Nets played their last game in the Garden State Monday, capping a history marked, more than anything else, by the passage of time. Theirs was a team defined by anti-climaxes, an inferiority complex and a nomadic existence that saw them play in Piscataway, East Rutherford and Newark over a 35-year history.

The tepid outpouring of essays and think-pieces from the New York and New Jersey media marking Monday’s occasion consistently noted that the Nets always seemed to be visitors on their own court (wherever that may have been), playing to audiences either too cheap or too indifferent to go to Manhattan for Knicks games. Only one week before, the arena  had been filled by Bostonians who crowed and gave standing ovations when Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were pulled from the game in garbage time, drowning out those who had come from Newark or Secaucus or any of the vaguely urban New Jersey suburbs that blend together unceremoniously as they slide away from New York City.

The Nets spent most of their time in New Jersey at the Izod Center in East Rutherford, within the confines of the Meadowlands Sports Complex and across the street from the home of two NFL teams that had opted to maintain New York monikers despite playing west of the Hudson River. Buck Williams led a successful string of teams there in the 1980s. Drazen Petrovic flourished briefly at Izod before tragically passing away in a car accident on the Bavarian Autobahn. A decade later, Jason Kidd played his best years there — leading the Nets to back-to-back Eastern Conference titles in 2002 and 2003.

But even the Nets’ successes were not enough to combat the team’s fuzzy anonymity and the stench of mediocrity that seeps into every joke about the state of New Jersey. It wasn’t as though they were a complete laughingstock. The team never really stooped to the kind of low through which the Charlotte Bobcats are going currently. Their history is well established and carries more credibility within the league than those of both Golden State and the Clippers. Clearly, that is faint praise.

The Nets were never great, but they were also never the scrappy or lovable loser archetypes at which New Jerseyans tend to throw themselves. Kenyon Martin cannot generate the level of affection showered upon Bon Jovi, The Sopranos[1] or even, inexplicably, Kevin Smith movies — although it wasn’t for lack of trying (except in the case of Vince Carter).

The Nets are a tough team to love because their entire identity is transient. To avoid being folded up when the ABA merged with the NBA, the team had to sell its best player, future Hall of Famer Julius Erving, to their new conference rivals, the Philadelphia 76’ers. The proceeds of that sale went directly to the New York Knicks, who had to be compensated as per the merger agreement for the Nets “invading” their territory[2].

That sale set the tone for what would ultimately be the legacy of the New Jersey Nets, if you could even call it that. Unlike the Knicks or the Celtics or the Lakers or any of the league’s blue chip franchises, there are only a handful of perennial All-Stars who spent their strongest years holding it down for Jersey. That didn’t bode well for drawing in casual fans, and it’s the regular presence of casual fans that fosters an environment where die-hards can hone their appetites for a team. Those die-hards create an atmosphere that draws in better players and makes an otherwise unattractive franchise appealing.

That is what separates a team like the Oklahoma City Thunder from the New Jersey Nets, even though the Thunder play in the middle of nowhere and the Nets play 15 miles from the largest media market in the United States. True, the Thunder’s cultivation of talent would be nearly impossible to replicate, given the level of skill and luck it took to land Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden in the draft. However, trading draft picks for Gerald Wallace isn’t even trying, and it’s tough to convince fans to make some noise for a team when that’s all you have done to placate their waning demand for a win.

That the Nets didn’t even start their biggest player in their last home game reinforces that point. Even though starting NBA All-Star Deron Williams would have made no sense objectively — the Nets’s season was effectively over and risking injury to a star player you’re hoping to resign in free agency is insane — watching a handful of die-hards try to generate enthusiasm over a resurgent Gerald Green was just sad. There was little effort on the part of the team to make their last hurrah in New Jersey a memorable one, and the fans responded in kind.

An on-the-court red carpet ceremony at halftime celebrated the successes and failures of the franchise as those in attendance trickled out from the aisles to use the restroom, grab a bite to eat, or chug beer from plastic cups emblazoned with the logo of Prudential Center’s true owners — the New Jersey Devils. Nets luminaries in attendance, like the lifetime-banned Michael Ray Richardson and Derrick “whoop-de-damn-do” Williams, were tepidly applauded, and the 2002 and 2003 Eastern Conference Champion teams were given the respect they were due. Kidd, Carter and Martin each appeared on the Jumbotron to bid farewell, and even Brian “White Mamba” Scalibrine showed up to say goodbye.

The whole thing seemed as though it was designed by the owners to ask Nets ticketholders — respectfully — please don’t look back in anger.

It’s hard to imagine that they will. The indifference in the arena was palpable, so much so that I almost wished I’d had a scientific instrument to measure it — a la the embarrassing noise meter that shows up whenever the Nets show signs of rallying. With the game more or less decided in the final minutes, fans started filing out as though it were any other regular season game, opting to beat traffic rather than watch the team’s bench players kill time.

It was tough to blame them. The game itself was unsurprisingly dull. Even though the Nets pulled within one point of the 76’ers during the third quarter, Philadelphia never yielded the lead or momentum in the second half to an offense spearheaded by MarShon Brooks’s isolation plays and Kris Humphries’s (atrocious) 15-footers. The production on the court was weak, and it will remain weak unless the team makes some serious moves to retain Williams and acquire Dwight Howard in the off-season. Changing the geographic prefix of their name won’t adjust quality, just like changing arenas three times in 35 years didn’t.

Within the context of this season, the game was most important to the Sixers, who needed the 105-87 victory to clinch the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. Their celebration took place, mercifully, behind closed doors, and not at center court where the handful of people who stuck around to savor New Jersey basketball one last time would be forced to watch.

They’ve already been through enough.

[1] James Gandolfini actually made an appearance as Tony through a farewell video at the game.

[2] The thought of Nets fans “invading” anything at this point is hilarious. It probably won’t be as funny when Brooklyn hipsters adopt the team next year. The fact that I proudly attended four Nets games this season will probably lead me to resent them, which in turn will make me a hipster for hating on the people who “discovered” the Nets even though I was there before they sold out and moved out of Newark.

At that point, I’ll start hating myself.


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