Before the New Jersey Nets beat the Indiana Pacers 120-114 in Indianapolis last week for a club-record 11th straight victory, Len Elmore of the Nets was standing at the edge of the Market Square Arena court, chatting up the Pacers' Billy Knight. A white-haired woman in the first row arose. "Billy!" she bellowed. The two turned. "Is he going to win tonight?" she said, pointing at Elmore.
Elmore and Knight looked at each other and smiled. But the woman, cross now, persisted. "Tell him!" she cried. "He won last night! We gotta take turns on this."
As the Hoosier harridan soon found out, if there's one team you can't negotiate with these days, it's the Nets. Led by a couple of forwards, 30-year-old Wallace Edgar (Mickey) Johnson and 22-year-old Charles Linwood (Buck) Williams, last week they also knocked off the Los Angeles Lakers 110-96 and rebounded from a 133-108 streak-ending comeuppance in Boston to beat the New York Knicks 100-96 at home.
Johnson and Williams are the NBA's two most common surnames, but little else about the Nets follows form. They sustained their streak with two other top forwards—Albert King and Mike O'Koren—ailing. And despite being one of the league's shortest teams, averaging just a smidgen under 6'7", they lead the NBA in outrebounding opponents; at week's end, the Nets' margin was more than six a game. Something's in the air in East Rutherford, where the Nets play their home games, besides carcinogens.
How have the Nets survived, and thrived, at less than their fittest? Says Darwin Cook, a starting guard, "Simple. We've been forcing people defensively, and then offensively things just come naturally." Indeed, during the streak they scored only two more points per game than during their first 26 games this season, but their defensive average improved by six points in that time.
And they are at last being appreciated. When New Jersey rose to the occasion—it was Mahwah Night—and beat the Lakers last week, the first sellout crowd ever at Byrne Meadowlands Arena bore witness. With Saturday's defeat of their cross-river rivals, the arriviste Nets were 25-14, good for third in the NBA's aristocratic Atlantic Division. Meanwhile, the 13-24 Knicks, who start Edmund Sherod, a guard the Nets let go twice, were last.
It's more than a coincidence that New Jersey has won 21 of 32 since Mickey Johnson joined the team on Nov. 10. Johnson was the late throw-in in the trade that sent Guard Phil Ford to Milwaukee for the rights to Fred Roberts, an erstwhile BYU star now playing in Italy. Johnson, who's considered a "small" forward although he's 6'10", got a chance to start when King suffered a knee injury on Jan. 1. For the 21 points and 8.5 assists he averaged in his first four starts, Johnson was named NBA Player of the Week. And in his fifth start, in the win against L.A., Johnson shot 15-for-21 and had seven rebounds and four steals. Even pop music seems to have taken notice: Toni Basil's recent No. 1 hit, Mickey, has been following Johnson around like a tail. The organist at the Meadowlands began playing a quick riff of it after each Johnson bucket. He doesn't particularly like the association. "That song's about a gigolo," he says. "I'm not a gigolo."
But this Mickey has been around. He's a nine-year veteran, from tiny Aurora (Ill.) College, playing with guys who all seem to be recent alumni of the ACC, and he isn't caught up in Coach Larry Brown's rah-rah, undergrad atmosphere. If the team bus is set to leave at 5:30 p.m., most of the players will show at 5:15. Johnson ambles up at 5:29. But then, his attitude upon coming to the Nets wasn't just cavalier; it was hostile. "He was devastated by the trade, and I could see it in everything about him," says Brown. "So we had a few heart-to-hearts."
Truth is, Brown hadn't wanted Johnson. "I wanted Roberts and a first-round pick," he says, "and I thought we'd get that. I didn't want an older small forward who might by his presence kill the confidence of O'Koren and Albert. It was [General Manager] Bob MacKinnon's decision."
And Johnson wanted no part of the Nets. "I resented coming here," he says. "I didn't think it was in my best interests to leave a veteran team, one of the top five, and come to an inexperienced one. It [the move] has turned out O.K., but I still don't know. It could happen that I'll be traded tomorrow."