It was a prevailing theory around the NBA for some time that the situation in East Rutherford, N.J., could hardly get any worse. Well, the New Jersey Nets have proved all those theorists wrong. The situation can always get worse around Exit 16W of the New Jersey Turnpike, and so it has. As of Sunday evening, the Nets' coach was eyeing the buzzards circling overhead, one of the team's owners was heading for vacation wondering if he still had a place in the organization, the players were performing erratically, and the fans—what there are of them, anyway—were shaking their heads and wondering what possesses them to follow this rubber-soled theater of the absurd.
"I've never been through anything like this," said New Jersey coach Bill Fitch. "If I had been, I'd be out there selling insurance or pencils right now. Anything but coaching. Coaching was not meant to be like this."
The Nets, 7-18 at week's end, are not the worst team in the NBA, not while there's a Minnesota Timberwolf still standing for the national anthem anyway. But they remain the most adept at embarrassing themselves. With an ideal franchise, owners, front-office executives, coaches and players are on the same page; in New Jersey, these people are reading different books in different languages.
The phrase "this much is certain" is difficult to use in matters pertaining to the Nets, but this much is certain: The two-year-old Fitch regime is on its last legs. As of late Sunday night, there were continued reports that former North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano had already signed a five-year guaranteed deal worth between $500,000 and $600,000 a year to replace Fitch. And even if Valvano isn't the next man to grab the blackboard and step onto the plank, there seems to be no way that ol' Captain Video, who at this time a decade ago was on his way to winning an NBA championship in Boston, will survive this tumultuous season as the Nets' coach. Fitch is incompatible with one of the franchise's owners, Joe Taub, and is also at odds with the player Taub considers to be the franchise's future, rookie point guard Kenny Anderson. Then again, Taub, who overstepped his bounds in his eagerness to bring in Valvano, may not be around for long either.
In any case Anderson, whose contract is worth about $14.5 million over five seasons, will be staying. Lucky guy, eh?
It's impossible to determine exactly when the most recent plan to revitalize the Nets went awry. Was it the hiring, in August 1989, of the strong-willed Fitch, New Jersey's eighth head coach in 10 years? Was it the drafting, in '90, of the promising but enigmatic Derrick Coleman, who has openly feuded with Fitch this season? Was it the re-entry, last June, into the muddled Nets' ownership picture of the outspoken Taub, who was certain to butt heads with Fitch and further muddle the role of Willis Reed, who carries the title of senior vice-president of basketball operations? Or was it the resignation shortly after Taub arrived of executive vice-president Bob Casciola, who one Nets insider described as the "coach of the owners"? Or was it Taub's insistence that the Nets draft Anderson, who plainly did not fit into Fitch's control offense?
Or should one just chalk it all up to fate, to the inevitability that somehow, some way, events surrounding the Turnpike Team are bound to get curiouser and curiouser. After all, this is the franchise that in its first year of existence as the New Jersey Americans of the ABA had to forfeit a playoff game because of unplayable conditions at the Commack (N.Y.) Arena. The game had been moved to Commack in the first place because the Americans' home arena, the Teaneck (N.J.) Armory, was hosting a circus. Here's the news: As far as Nets fans are concerned, the tents never folded up.
Fitch's decision to come in as ringmaster before the 1989-90 season raised eyebrows around the league. Some observers considered him too set in his ways and, at the age of 55, simply not energetic enough to turn around a team that had lost 177 of 246 games over the previous three seasons. But Fitch, who has made his mark by making bad teams into respectable ones (the expansion Cleveland Cavaliers of the early 1970s, the Boston Celtics of the late '70s, the Houston Rockets of the early '80s) and, in the case of the Celtics, into champions, has nothing if not a strong belief in himself. "It was not a mistake to take this job," Fitch said last Saturday, hours before the Nets dropped a 118-109 overtime decision to the Pacers in Indiana. "The Nets were a challenge, but if I could have done with them what I had with the others, I would have completed a cycle second to none."
Some wondered, too, how Fitch would fare under the Nets' confusing ownership chain, which includes a three-man governing committee (Alan Aufzien, David Gerstein and Jerry Cohen) that is itself a subcommittee of a seven-man board of directors. When Fitch met with the three owner-governors, he told them, "If you guys are as bad as people say you are, I'm not going to take this job." They persuaded him they weren't.
Fitch said he would need some time to build a winner, and he got it, signing a four-year contract worth $1.6 million. He won 17 games in 1989-90 and 26 games last season with the help of Rookie of the Year Coleman. Though no one was boosting New Jersey as a championship team nor Fitch as a candidate for coach of the year, the match of veteran coach and young team seemed satisfactory. But not satisfactory enough for Taub, a strong personality who in the early '80s had been a majority owner and an active voice in day-to-day affairs of the Nets. He had sold his interest in '85 but stayed close to the team, and, when then board vice-chairman Bernie Mann put his shares in the Nets up for sale last spring, Taub bought back in. He owns only 5% of the team, but he is recognized as "the basketball man" among the owners and was given specific "adviser" duties by the governing committee. Whether or not Taub knows his stuff is irrelevant: When he was given his advisory position somewhere in the hierarchy above Fitch, one could discern storm clouds on the smoggy North Jersey horizon. "For all intents and purposes, it was all over [for Fitch] when Joe came back," says a Nets source.