Not long ago the New York Nets were the court jesters of the American Basketball Association. It was not just that the team remained hilariously inept long after many other ABA clubs had grown to respectability—New York was a poor team right up to last season—it was more than that. If the Nets were bad, the places they played were worse. This made for a dynamite combination, surefire to keep fans away in droves. But now there is a new sort of New York explosion. Three months ago the Nets moved into a big new arena and. suddenly, they have become good enough to make the playoff finals. Just as abruptly, their fans have begun fighting to buy tickets. And now it is the Nets' turn to enjoy a bit of the hilarity. They are court-jesting all the way to the bank.
Some of the credit for the teams turnabout can be attributed to the fore-sightedness—and heavy pocketbook—of President Roy Boe. And some must go to the citizens of Long Island's Nassau County, who paid for the Nassau Coliseum in which the Nets now play. And some more belongs to General Manager-Coach Lou Carnesecca, who swept out all the old Nets and brought in a new roster of eager, young ones. Only two of the present players are over 25 years old and only two of them have been with the team as long as three seasons.
While the current Nets appreciate the plush surroundings of their new arena. none of them have been around long enough to remember just how bad the bad old days were. One of their rivals does. Before he was traded to the Kentucky Colonels two years ago, Walt Simon was a charter member of the Nets' franchise, right back to the ABA's first season, 1967-68, when the team was known as the New Jersey Americans and played in an armory in Teaneck where the games were scheduled between military drills.
"I'm from Harlem," Simon recalls, "and guys from uptown would come to me that first year and say, 'Man, I hear you're playing for that new team in Tea-neck. That's great! Hey, by the way, where is Teaneck? In Connecticut?' That year we had to shift a playoff game to the Commack Arena way out near the end of Long Island. But the game hail to be forfeited and we were knocked out of the playoffs because there were holes between the floorboards big enough for a sneaker to fit in and screws were sticking up all over the place.
"They got the floor fixed, changed Our name to New York Nets and scheduled all our games for Commack the next season. Now, I was brought up going to Madison Square Garden. You know: huge crowds full of those rich guys from the garment center wearing silk suit, smoking big cigars and carrying on with girls who look like their daughters. Out in Commack what fans we got drove to the games in trucks. Some of the women wore overalls.
"We moved the next year to the Island Garden, which was a little better. Still, the locker room had nails stuck in the wall to hang your clothes on and there were only two shower heads for the whole team. You didn't dare flush the toilet if someone was showering. You'd scald him. That was our dressing room; you should've seen the one for the visitors."
The main arena was not much better. Located behind a drive-in restaurant and used at various times as an indoor amusement park and a site for wrestling matches, the Island Garden looked best suited for cockfights.
Through those early seasons the team rarely drew more than 1.000 paying customers per game, which was fair enough. The Nets' play was right down to the level of the surroundings. In the ABA's first two seasons the team finished last. The current year was the first in which its record climbed over .500—it was .524.
Until two years ago New York never had signed a college draft choice of any significant ability. It was the consequences of failing to get one of them, Lew Alcindor, that mark the beginning of the team's rise. The ABA had always recognized that a strong New York franchise was crucial to its success—and with that in mind the league assigned the draft rights for Alcindor and the money to sign him to the Nets. Smarter heads in other ABA franchises had conducted a study (including sending psychologists disguised as reporters into the UCLA locker room to interview Alcindor) on the best strategy to ensure that the towering center would play in the ABA. Their report said that Alcindor was intelligent, honest and publicity-shy. Since Lew had already announced he would make his decision on the basis of a single offer from each league, the study recommended that the Nets present their best deal at the start. Ignoring the advice, New York Owner Arthur Brown and ABA Commissioner George Mikan decided instead on a grandstand play. They offered Lew a cashier's check for $1 million and grandly displayed it to the press. The NBA countered quietly with a far more lucrative and sophisticated contract, and Alcindor signed with the NBA. About a month later Brown sold the Nets to Boe, and Mikan later "resigned" from the ABA.
Boe, then 38 years old, had made a quick fortune when his women's apparel company popularized the wraparound skirt. He originally bought his franchise, as many wealthy businessmen do, as a lavish toy. But within two months of the purchase he realized the team was too expensive and time-consuming to operate as a hobby. So he quit the clothing business and took over full-time direction.