One of the great things about growing up in New York City is its vibrant pro sports landscape. Each of the four major professional leagues has at least two teams in the New York metropolitan area, creating natural rivalries. Eight of the nine New York area sports teams have devoted fan bases.
The one exception has been the New Jersey Nets. I don’t know of a single fan of the NBA team that plied their trade in the Garden State. The Nets were an afterthought; a mediocre team playing in a mediocre arena that was difficult to get to if you didn’t have a car, in front of very few fans. The Knicks dominated the hearts and minds of the region when they were winning and, sometimes, even when they weren’t. Since we didn’t have cable for much of my childhood, I’d watch the handful of Nets games that were televised on WWOR, but only because I wanted to see the Nets’ opponents. I used to make fun of Spencer Ross, the Nets’ play-by-play broadcaster in the early 1990s, because he seemed to be forcing a nickname on every Nets player to try and improve their likability: Kenny Anderson, a talented point guard who had trouble with health and with consistency, was always known as either “Special K” or “Kenny the Kid”; power forward Derrick Coleman, who could be one of the best players in the NBA when he wanted to be, was known strictly as “DC”. Legendary Knicks announcer Marv Albert never had to resort to such shenanigans, I thought to myself.
The thing is, it didn’t have to be this way. When the then-New York Nets agreed to join the NBA for the 1976-1977 season, they were coming off an ABA championship. They also had Julius Erving, one of the most exciting players in basketball history. The Knicks were still competitive, but the core of their great teams of the early 1970s was aging. The Nets had a legitimate chance to make serious inroads into the hearts and minds of New York area basketball fans. However, Nets owner Roy Boe had to pay $3.2 million to join the NBA and make the first of ten $480,000 payments to the New York Knicks to get them to waive their territorial rights. Needing a quick infusion of cash, Boe sold Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers (but only after offering Erving to the Knicks in exchange for them waving the territorial rights payments. The Knicks refused). So, instead of entering the NBA with one of the greatest basketball players of all time and an opportunity to steal some of the Knicks’ thunder, the Nets had to settle for mediocrity and obscurity. They moved from Long Island’s Nassau Coliseum to New Jersey the next season and, despite some halfway decent teams in the early 1980s, were largely ignored. Erving, by the way, would lead the 76ers to an NBA title.
When it comes to sports, baseball was my first love and the NBA was my second. I grew up rooting for those talented Knicks teams of the early 1990s that would always give Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls a run for their money before coming up short. Mom was also a huge Knicks fan and we tried to go to their games at Madison Square Garden whenever we could. But, the Knicks always sold out and we were lucky to catch one or two games a year from the upper reaches of The World’s Most Famous Arena.
Before the start of the 1995-1996 NBA season, Mom decided to get us a seven-game New Jersey Nets ticket plan because all of those plans included at least one Knicks-Nets game. So, off we went from the Bronx, across the George Washington Bridge and onto the New Jersey Turnpike, to see the New York area’s neglected franchise. The Nets played at the nondescript Brendan Byrne Arena, which was named after the governor of New Jersey who got the facility built. During that season, the name changed to the Continental Airlines Arena; of course the Nets would play in the only arena or stadium in the area named after a corporate sponsor. I saw some great basketball teams and players that season. I saw the Bulls, who won an NBA-record 72 games that year, thrash the Nets, but not before Bulls bad boy Dennis Rodman got ejected, taking off his jersey as he angrily stalked off the court. I also saw the Detroit Pistons who were on the upswing with young stars Grant Hill and Allan Houston, a very good Indiana Pacers team featuring future Hall of Famer Reggie Miller, and the 76ers who weren’t very good but had exciting rookie Jerry Stackhouse. I also saw the Knicks, of course, who had the nerve to lose the game I attended.
Unfortunately, I also had to watch the Nets, who served in the Washington Generals role most of the nights we were there. Their most consistent player was Armen Gilliam, a journeyman forward known as “The Hammer”, complete with a hammer pounding a nail on the arena matrix board whenever Gilliam scored. The talented Anderson stayed healthy that season, but the Nets knew they weren’t going to be able to sign him long-term, so they traded him to the Charlotte Hornets in January. That season, the Nets gave out replica jerseys featuring the name and number of rookie forward Ed O’Bannon, their first-round draft pick, despite the fact he wasn’t playing like a future franchise cornerstone; O’Bannon was out of the NBA two years later. During one game, Nets general manager Willis Reed was shown on the video board and showered with boos. The Nets would finish the 1995-1996 season with a 30-52 record and fire head coach Butch Beard, who hasn’t coached in the NBA since.
Things did get better for the Nets on the court after that, culminating in back-to-back NBA Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003. However, the fans never did show up and the Nets continued to fight a losing battle for the hearts, minds and wallets of area sports fans.
But, that’s all changing because the New Jersey Nets are now the Brooklyn Nets.
I’m excited about the Nets laying root in Brooklyn. Many New Yorkers have already embraced the Nets’ new, black and white logo, the Nets have made several moves to improve their on-court product and their games at the brand-new Barclays Center will be a hot ticket all winter. No longer will the Nets’ location on the wrong side of the Hudson River prevent them from drawing fans and keeping and acquiring quality players.
As a Knicks fan, I suppose I shouldn’t be excited about the Nets’ improved prospects. However, I’m looking forward to the Knicks having a true geographic rival. I’m hopeful the Nets will force the Knicks to improve their on- and off-court product since the Knicks will no longer be able to rely on the fact that they have little competition regionally. I think the Knicks will always be the more popular of the two franchises, but the Nets will be able to make a dent as the years progress.
In the near future, I hope I can make it to the Barclays Center for a Knicks-Nets game. It will be neat to watch the Nets play in a bright, colorful arena that’s filled to capacity and easily accessible by public transportation. There will probably still be more Knicks fans than Nets fans there, but at least the Nets will have a decent number of fans rooting them on. It will be a completely different experience from the Nets games I attended in the mid 1990s.
And, this time, the Knicks better win.Follow @raford3