In 35 years, New Jersey charm never kicked in for inferior Nets
The Brooklyn-bound Nets played their final home game in New Jersey on Monday
There were few good Nets memories in N.J.; most came to see their opponents
Even the Nets' teams that made the NBA Finals in 2002 and '03 lacked respect
While it's true that the final Garden State game for your New Jersey Nets was contested Monday night at the Prudential Center in Newark, if you concentrated hard you could likely hear the ancient sounds from the Meadowlands just 12 miles north.
No, not basketball sounds. The sounds of sprinter Carl Lewis warbling one of the worst national anthems in recorded history, a category that does not lack for broadness. I was there on that memorable night of Jan. 21, 1993, listening with equal parts bemusement and horror as one of the best all-time sprinters turned in one of the worst all-time public appearances. I'm not going to describe it. Just YouTube it.
I feel bad advancing Lewis' anthem as my most vivid memory from the Nets' 35-year Jersey history, but, alas, it is. And second place might belong to the March 26, 1991, memory of a visiting player, one Charles Wade Barkley, then toiling for the Philadelphia 76ers, accidentally spitting on a young girl who was sitting in a courtside seat. Barkley's target was a heckling fan near her, but, as he later offered in this memorable explanation, "I didn't get enough foam."
On the night of Lewis' tortured anthem, I was there not to write about the home team but to chronicle its opponent, which happened to be Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls. That says it all about the Nets, who during their Joisey years knew that the majority -- often the vast majority -- of fans were there to see someone else. Even in the Nets' penultimate home game, last Wednesday night against the Knicks, a moment when you would think that sentiment -- even sentimentality -- would run high, the home team was not the crowd favorite.
"The Nets were in the middle of a comeback," observed Fred Kerber, who has covered the Nets since 1995 for the New York Post, "and 90 percent of the crowd was booing them." Even Kerber, who would never be described as a homer, found that a little sad.
For reporters like myself, I actually liked Nets home games for this reason: It presented one of the best opportunities in the league to interview opposing players. They frequently came in loose because they were going to win the game against an inferior Nets team. And they were liable to be relaxed either because they had gotten a lot of sleep (meaning that they had stayed in the vast wasteland near the arena), or they had gotten a lot of action (meaning that they had bunked down in Manhattan).
The visiting locker room was decent-sized. The courtside seats in the arena were far from the action, so a player might chat in relaxed fashion while he shot around before the game. And the Nets' public relations staff, led by veteran Gary Sussman, who became the arena P.A. announcer, was accommodating and not overly defensive about the fact that his team was generally not the center of attention.
On one level, it's easy to figure out why the Nets had trouble landing a solid fan base. "Charmless" is a word that describes both their home playpen (variously Brendan Byrne Arena, Continental Airlines Arena and the Izod Center but always just the "Meadowlands"), and the New-Jersey-Turnpike drive to get there; veteran Boston Globe writer Bob Ryan always referred to the franchise as the "Exit 16-W Nets." There was the shadow-of-New-York-City factor and the fact that the Nets were never quite bad enough to get a lovable-loser tag.
But it still never quite added up to me. Even the great Nets teams of 2002 and 2003, both of which lost in the NBA Finals, never got much respect. Jason Kidd used to kill the Knicks, but, still, when at "home" in New Jersey, the cheers went to the other guys. In fact, those Kidd/Kerry Kittles/Richard Jefferson/Kenyon Martin teams were as entertaining as any in the league -- "They were the four fastest guys in the league at their position," Kerber said -- but could never catch fire in their own 'hood.
And speaking of their 'hood, one might think that that hard-boiled Joisy-in-the-swamp aspect would've been fashionable at times, especially during The Sopranos years. I remember being excited one night at the Meadowlands because my press-table seat was right in front of Tony Soprano, aka James Gandolfini. (I kept wondering if Tony was going to dart out at halftime, whack a stoolie, as he did during Meadow's college trip, and still get back in time for the fourth quarter.)
But the excitement never happened, the Jersey charm never kicked in, and Nets fever was never an epidemic. The franchise deserves better and perhaps it will find a welcoming home in Brooklyn. But one has to remember: Knicks fans can get across the East River easier than they did the Hudson.