Hello Brooklyn… How you do? Where you goin’? Can I come too?
After 35 years in the NBA (and 10 years previously in the ABA), professional basketball is leaving Newark, New Jersey, and shifting to Brooklyn, New York. The team played its final game as the ‘New Jersey Nets’ versus the Toronto Raptors on April 26th, an embarrassing 98-67 loss, their sixth in a row which ended their final season in Newark with a forgettable 22-44 record.
It’s a tragically fitting way for the mostly-disappointing Nets era to end in New Jersey. Starting initially in the ABA as the New Jersey Americans in 1967, the team became the New York Nets in ’68 and won two ABA championships through the brilliance of Julius Erving. But after the NBA/ABA merger in 1976, the team was forced to pay a penalty to the neighbouring Knicks for ‘invading’ the New York area. This penalty forced the Nets to cancel Erving’s promised pay rise, and a disappointed Erving refused to play for his team. The Knicks turned down Erving too, and the Nets finally found buyers for him in the Philadelphia 76ers. Erving continued to be a marquee star and one of the most popular stars in the newly merged NBA.
Meanwhile, the Nets’ first season in the new league ended with a 22-60 record (the same amount of wins as this year), and their best player Tiny Archibald broke his foot a couple of months into the season. The Nets finished at dead last fifth place in their division (where they finished this season, too). The joy of the Nets beginning in the NBA was scarred with losing their best player (Erving). The circle could be truly complete this year if the joy of becoming the Brooklyn Nets gets scarred with the 2012 version of the team losing its current best player – Deron Williams – who is tilting towards leaving the team in this summer’s free agency.
In between these three and a half decades in the NBA, the Nets have had a lot of bad times, some weird times, some tragic times, and yes, a few good times, too. Their high-points were when Jason Kidd led the Nets to two Eastern Conference victories and Finals appearances (both losses) in 2002 and 2003. This marked the brightest era in the franchise’s history, where the Nets were the top team in the Atlantic Division four times in five years. Kidd, with help from Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson, was the catalyst in keeping the squad relevant and competitive during this stretch.
Looking over their history, there were a couple more (faintly) bright sparks. Like 1983-84, when the team featured Darryl Dawkins, Buck Williams, and Michael Ray Richardson and reached the second round of the playoffs. And like the early 90s, when the team had Derrick Coleman, Drazen Petrovic, and Kenny Anderson, and looked promising in the regular season before an early playoff exit.
But oh, there were a lot of sad times. There was that previously mentioned bad-omened beginning of their NBA life, without Erving and later without Archibald. Due to poor attendance, the Nets moved back to New Jersey starting in 1977, and in the process, a lawsuit forced them to pay a penalty to the Knicks once more. In 1986, they lost their then top two scorers: All Star Michael Ray Richardson (to a failed drug test that banned him from the NBA forever) and Darryl Dawkins (to a back injury). Dawkins had under back injury a year later and was never the same player again, also ending any promise for the future that the squad could’ve had. In the 1987 NBA Draft, the Nets selected Dennis Hopson over Scottie Pippen, Reggie Miller, and Kenny Johnson (Captain Hindsight alert!) and finished the decade with more injuries that never allowed them to lift off.
And then there was Drazen.
There was little I can say about the great Drazen Petrovic that hasn’t already been said numerous times around the world. Once considered the best basketball player in the planet outside America, the Croatian shooting guard Petrovic joined the Nets from the Trailblazers in 1991. Petrovic joined a team which had Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson, and he was finally showing the type of form that made him a superstar in Europe. Alas, tragedy struck both him and the ill-fated franchise when Petrovic was killed in a car accident in Germany in 1993.
A season later, the Nets started to morph into one of the NBA’s most unlikable teams and their ‘star’ Coleman was even chosen by Sports Illustrated to be on the cover as a poster child of selfish NBA players. Until the end of the 90s, the Nets had underachieving coaches (Butch Beard, John Calipari), underachieving players (Stephon Marbury, Keith Van Horn, Tim Thomas, and Jayson Williams) and of course, not too many wins.
Things changed for the better when Kenyon Martin was drafted and Marbury was traded for Jason Kidd at the turn of the 2000s. The team got to two finals, losing to Lakers and Spurs respectively each time. They tried to revamp in the mid-2000s by acquiring Vince Carter to join Kidd, and although they remained amongst the top teams in the East, they never made any more trips back to the Finals. By 2008, Kidd, Carter, Jefferson and of course Martin had all departed and replaced with a fresh crop of young not-very-good players, and the Nets were back to being the Nets again.
Since then, there has been a lot of bark with a no bite. Billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, the third richest man in Russia, bought the team with the promise of making things better or at least a lot more interesting. Rapper Jay-Z also bought a small share of the team and brought a little more hype to the forgotten squad. The Nets placed all their chips in the 2010 free agency, clearing cap space to make move for any of the available superstar free agents that summer, including LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Amar’e Stoudemire, Joe Johnson, or Carlos Boozer. What they instead ended up with was Travis Outlaw. Mid-season last year, the Nets entered another battle with the Knicks, this time for the acquisition of Denver’s superstar Carmelo Anthony. The Knicks won again, but the Nets got an equally worthy consolation in getting Deron Williams from the Jazz.
But Deron could do little alone, and the Nets kept losing, finishing 2011 with the league’s worst record, and now, finishing the 2012 season bottom of their division. The Nets dreams of getting Dwight Howard didn’t come true either, and they had to settle for Gerald Wallace. Their other major piece, Center Brook Lopez was out with an injury for most of the season.
Jay-Z seemed to be okay with the fall though, because in his mind, and in the mind of the rest of the owners was Brooklyn, Jay-Z’s home-town and the new destination for the Nets. With the 2012 regular season in the books and the Nets watching the playoffs from their respective homes once again, it is time for them to look ahead. The franchise will become the Brooklyn Nets starting the next season later this year, playing their games at the newly-completed Barclays Center. Prokorov and Jay-Z will be there, but will Williams, Wallace, and Lopez follow? Will the shiny new team with their flashy owners actually start their new NBA life like they started their first one – with misery?
And the move to Brooklyn, New York, once again brings into focus the Nets’ rivalry with the neighbouring Knicks. The Knickerbockers have owned New York and its basketball fans for about 65 years since the NBA began. They have been a thorn to the Nets several times in this era, as an Atlantic Division rival and an off-the-court competitor. Jay-Z might be fine with “sitting courtside, Knicks and Nets give me high-fives”, but in reality, the two squads are headed for another turf war. For now, with the Knicks rising and the Nets falling, it seems that the Knicks will dominate the city much like the Lakers have dominated the Clippers in Los Angeles for several decades.
Perhaps in the future, the move to Brooklyn may pay dividends economically to the franchise and earn it more fans than the dwindling few in New Jersey. But the new fans will eventually be more interested in on-court success and a return to the highs of the Jason Kidd era.
Goodbye New Jersey… Hello Brooklyn.