Another confession: I half-expected to encounter dancers with the IQ of an air ball, but I was way off the mark. "Most of the girls on the team are in college or have graduated from college," says Michelle Connolly, a senior geology major at Rutgers. "I don't tell people at school that I'm a Nets Girl, not because I'm ashamed but because they ask stupid questions like 'Is Paula Abdul your idol?' or 'Do you get to meet the players?' "
So why—given the unflattering stereotype, the long hours and the low pay—would anyone want to be a Nets Girl? "Every dancer has Paula Abdul disease," says McLoone. "Deep down they hope that someone discovers them just like Paula Abdul was discovered when she was a Laker Girl."
The only member of the team without dance training is Mann, a former varsity gymnast at Rutgers, who at 31 is the senior member of the squad. "I'm the tomboy out there," says Mann. "I love basketball. Half the time I'm not paying attention to what routines we have to do next. Instead I'm second-guessing a bad pass or cheering a good shot. It's great being out on the court, seeing everybody get excited, celebrating and yelling 'Go, girlfriend; go, girlfriend' at me. But the best part about it all is the game itself."
Ah, yes, what about the game itself?
McLoone admitted that at times even he mourns the loss of an evening of unadulterated hoops—sugar-free, with no artificial additives. "Sometimes I don't like what we do," he says. "But there's been more and more of an obligation to put this extraneous stuff in. I mean, look at Chicago and what they do. They have a rock star of their own in Jordan but still feel compelled to have that indoor blimp and turn the lights off and announce the players with the spotlight. Maybe in 25 years we'll look back at the music and the video screens and say, 'My god, what have they done to my sport!' "
One final confession: When Plimpton wrote Paper Lion, he explained that the notion behind participatory journalism was to gain "firsthand knowledge of the professional athlete...and to play out the fantasies, the daydreams that so many people have." As for my own firsthand knowledge, I left the Sheraton that August night impressed with the dancers' talent. But my paper Nets Girls experience certainly didn't fulfill a childhood fantasy—as a kid, I would have dismissed the dance squad as sissy cheerleading stuff. And during the course of the evening I did not contract the Paula Abdul disease, with its dreams of Diet Coke commercials and MTV awards.
Apart from a heightened awareness of my inabilities as a dancer, what did I gain? Well, I'm more convinced than ever that the NBA's entertainment concept is silly. A parquet basketball court is not the proper stage for a dance routine—imagine a little three-on-three during the intermission of a Broadway musical. After all, the show is the excitement in the paint and above the hoop. And that should be enough entertainment for most fans. Right, girlfriend?