New Jersey Nets (1976-2012)

It was April 19, 1998. Nearly 14 years ago. Absolutely crazy that it was that long since my first NBA game ever. I was a seven year old, finally seeing the game I loved so much, the game I one day wanted to make my living playing, featuring real professional basketball players. Continental Airlines Arena. I’ve never been so connected to a corporate sponsored named facility, especially one that’s a dump. But that day, it was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen in my nearly eight years on Earth.

New Jersey Nets vs. Detroit Pistons. Game 82 of 82. Nets win and they get the eight seed and the honor of being destroyed by the Chicago Bulls in round 1 on Michael’s last road to a title.

To be honest, I wasn’t even a Nets fan at the time. My dad, a Knicks fan who grew up in Queens, shared a love with me for all his teams. Yankees, Giants, and especially the Knickerbockers. Patrick Ewing is still my childhood idol.

I liked the Nets, but had never connected with them tremendously. Though the only poster up in my room at the time was a Keith Van Horn poster from a SLAM Magazine I had on my closet door. (That poster till it got destroyed about 10 years later after hundreds of times running into it playing on the mini basketball hoop I had above my door and trying to dunk. Also, the player on the other side of that poster was some guy a seven year old me had never heard of with a big afro. Julius Erving. I clearly was in need of a history lesson.)

But I remember a lot from that game. Not as much as I thought I did, as looking at the box score a little more than 14 years later, I though Sam Cassell had the game of his life that day. Had been telling people that for years. Turns out the guy was out with an injury and the one leading the offense was Sherman Douglas that day (His line was amazing though: 47 minutes, 8-12 shooting, 18 points, 11 assists).

But I do remember Kendall Gill putting up a season high 27 points. A rookie Van Horn and his high socks adding 25, while Kerry Kittles put in 22 as well. I remember buying a black Nets flag (which is to this day hanging on my bedroom mirror), with their (at the time) new and (at the time) awesome logo and waiving it like it was my dang job in the last few rows of the lower seating area (Nice of my Dad to try and get me good seats for my first game). I remember being one of the 20,049 people at Continental Airlines that day cheering as New Jersey came back from being down at the half with a great third quarter, outscoring Grant Hill and Detroit 36-23. And I remember saving the sports section of the paper the next day, looking at the picture of Gill on the front cover, his arms raised in victory.

That’s where my New Jersey Nets memories begin.

Tonight is being called a celebration of the New Jersey Nets 35 years in the Garden State. To be honest, it’s more a funeral.

That’s not to say that this will be a sad night in Newark as the Nets prepare to play in their $1 billion arena in Brooklyn, the Barclays Center. I mean, it will be sad, but it will be a happy night as well. Tonight, some of the Nets greatest players will be back in front of the fans they used to entertain to close the last chapter in Jersey professional basketball for now, and possibly forever.

For me, game #65 vs the Philadelphia 76ers will be that funeral for a beloved family member. A chance to say your goodbyes to something that’s meant so much to you. For something you’ve thought about and talked about for years and years. A chance to reminisce about the games you attended, the players you cheered for, and the moments you shared. Tonight, we pay our final respect to the NEW JERSEY NETS, and I’ll always cherish the memories.

The above video is my favorite thing on the Internet right now. It describes a golden age of basketball in my life that practically no one else feels the same way about. The 2001-02 and 2003-03 seasons are looked at by the global NBA world as a run of Western Conference dominance and overall poor basketball. I look at them like some of the happiest memories of my sports fandom. I was alive and aware to see the Knicks-Pacers rivalry, Jordan take his last couple titles… I saw Hakeem, Barkley, Robinson, Pippen, Malone and Stockton, Kemp and the Glove, Grant Hill before his knees hated him, Penny, Shaq, and plenty of other superstars BK… Before Kidd.

I have a great respect for basketball growing up. As I said earlier from my days as a Knicks fan growing up, Patrick Ewing is my basketball idol.

But if Ewing is my basketball idol, Jason Kidd is my basketball savior.

I switched from being primarily a Knicks fan to being a full-fledged Nets fan the day Patrick Ewing was traded to the Seattle Supersonics. I didn’t realize he had no more knees; I thought Ewing could do no wrong, so I was done with the Knicks… Who cares about rational thinking when you’re 9.

Plus, I had this team, in my home state, WHO ACTUALLY WAS PROUD TO PUT THE NAME “NEW JERSEY” on their uniforms. My Nets love had been building and was slowly passing over the Knicks, much to my Dad’s dismay, and the Ewing trade broke the camel’s back.

This Nets team was pretty awful. They hadn’t made the playoffs since ’98, had a “star” player in Stephon Marbury (who they traded Sam Cassell for, which I hated), who famously put “All Alone” and “33” (which was Starbury’s number) on his shoes (Great team player, right). But then GM Rod Thorn made the greatest trade in franchise history, and what I could easily potentially argue is the greatest trade in the last 20 years in the NBA.

I could honestly write about 1000 words easy right here about what Jason Kidd meant to the New Jersey Nets. But I’ll try to keep it a quicker and while showing proper appreciation for what he did to change the culture of a losing factory of basketball. He brought life to a lifeless place, team, and fan base. He made New Jerseyans care about this team. He made careers out of teammates that had no business playing for NBA finals. He brought what the Nets are still looking for ever since his knees got bad and was traded to Dallas… relevance.

I could write a page about what a joy it was to watch Kenyon Martin play for the New Jersey Nets. K-Mart is looked at around the league now as a joke, a bit of a loose cannon, and a player on the Clippers bench who doesn’t matter anymore. But I will always remember #6 soaring for J-Kidd ally oops. Battling for rebounds under the boards. That Sports Illustrated cover, and most importantly leading the crowd, DEMANDING that they get loud. Refusing to even walk to the circle before the game till he was satisfied with the noise level in the arena. Kidd was the leader, but K-Mart was the heart of the team. The day he was traded to Denver, was the day I knew everything was over and the Nets would never be back in the finals picture again with that nucleus (Kidd also hated this move more than anyone will ever know and it became his ammunition for his eventual departure when his disgust for owner Bruce Ratner continued to build from that move on. But Ratner will be the focus of another blog. I can’t bare to talk about him here).

I’ll always remember my disbelief the Suns would give up Kidd for Marbury (not realizing at the time Kidd’s legal troubles were a big part), wondering if they were watching the same NBA I was. I’ll always remember the fast breaks lead by J-Kidd, with K-Mart, Richard Jefferson, and Kerry Kittles exchanging running the lanes. It felt like an automatic two points every time. I’ll always remember Keith Van Horn’s high socks, his three point shooting, and of course, that poster in my room. I’ll always remember the role and bench guys; players like Lucious Harris and his mask, Aaron Williams, Jason Collins, Todd MacCulloch, Anthony Johnson, Tamar Slay (who knows why, I’ll just always remember Slay as the 2nd round pick from Marshall that never played). I’ll always remember how awesome it was to have Brian Scalabrine on our team before it was cool to have Brian Scalabrine on your team.

I’ll always remember the magazine covers. Like this. And this. And this. I’ll always remember the optimism people held for the Nets. Thinking they were so close to putting a championship team together. I’ll always remember them actually doing so.
I’ll always remember sitting at my beach club, watching New Jersey blow a huge lead in the 4th quarter of the ’02 Conference finals and Boston scoring 41 points in the last 12 minutes to take a 2-1 series lead. I’ll always remember the fight the team then showed winning the next three, as I celebrated going to the NBA Finals at my hometown Applebee’s, when the restaurant erupted as Van Horn hit the series clinching three with 50 seconds left in Boston. I’ll always remember actually realizing they’re were other fans than me of this team right then and there. I’ll always remember trying to think how MacCulloch, Collins, and Williams would all try to guard Shaq and then watch them not be able to do it. I’ll always remember getting swept.

I’ll always remember coming back in 2002-03 and winning 10 straight playoff games, including sweeping the Pistons and thinking we had a chance against the Spurs in the finals. I’ll always remember listening the radio call in the car, deciding whether to complain, plead for a comeback, or stay quiet as they lost control of Game 6 and saw their season end again with no trophy. I’ll always remember worrying that Kidd was going to sign with San Antonio, only loving him for staying in Jersey. I’ll always remember wondering if we’d ever get another shot.

After those finals runs, the Nets really didn’t have any more “bright” moments. Vince Carter was a Net for a while. Nothing happened really, two playoff series wins, that’s it. The team made the Conference Semi’s three times, but ran into much better competition in Detroit, Miami, and Cleveland.

Then Kidd wanted out and the rebuilding process began (Also, seeing Jason get the ring he deserved last year was a special moment for me and other Nets fans. No one deserved that more than him, along with Dirk). Devin Harris was well hyped, but any reasonable fan knew the team would do nothing with him. They haven’t made the playoffs since ’06, yet besides for their 12 win season in 2009-10, they’ve been middle of the pack and out of top lottery contention, stuck in basketball mediocrity.

The Deron Williams trade brought hope, but could be taking it away in a matter of months if the All Star point guard goes to play for his hometown Dallas Mavericks.

But those moments are not the ones I want to focus on. I want to focus on the best times ever in New Jersey Nets basketball history. Times I got to personally experience. Times I’ll tell my kids about when they wonder how silly it was to have the Nets be called anything but “Brooklyn”.

I vented a lot here in this blog. If for some reason you’re still reading, then you obviously know what it means to care about a sports team, and you know it must hurt a lot to have them taken away. I loved the time I had with the New Jersey Nets and I’ll never forget all the amazing memories I had. From that first game to those Kidd years… I’ll always cherish those moments. So with that, I bid farewell to the New Jersey Nets. Your time as a team may be over, but you will always live on in our memories.

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