It’s a crossroad in the history of the franchise. They are leaving the state they have called home for the last 35 years, although it may feel longer or shorter depending on who you talk to. It’s state that has struggled to support them, even in their most successful times. They are moving into a billion dollar arena in the most populated borough of the most famous city in the country. Sounds like a good move.
It is a great move for the New Jersey, soon-to-be Brooklyn, Nets. They get to lose, although they say they won’t, the stench of a frustrating three plus decades in the Garden State. While the franchise, and most of the fan base, is finished with New Jersey, the forgotten group is those fans who are devastated by the move and will be emotionally fixated on the final game at the Prudential Center in downtown Newark on Monday night.
Look at it from the view of a Jersey kid who grew up as a New Jersey Nets fan. This kid attended his first Nets game back in February of 2002 at Continental Airlines Arena in the Meadowlands. It was a Nets-Knicks matchup, with a majority of the arena filled with blue and orange, like most games played in New Jersey. That night this kid saw the Nets, led by All-NBA point guard Jason Kidd, dismantle the Knicks. He was hooked. He knew who he was rooting for now, and it wasn’t the Knicks.
The young Jersey boy could not have picked a better time to learn the game of basketball and join the Nets fan base. Fifty-two regular season wins and an Eastern Conference Championship later, the Kidd-led Nets were preparing to face the two-time defending champion Los Angeles Lakers. Sure, the Nets did not have enough firepower to beat the Lakers, but they finally broke through, twenty five years after arriving in New Jersey.
Jason Kidd was the Nets savior, the unselfish superstar, the future Hall-of-Famer the team had been looking for since the untimely death of Drazen Petrovic in the early 1990s. The franchise had so many players who put themselves before the team and caused the Nets to become a punching bag. Michael Ray Richardson, Derrick Coleman, Stephon Marbury, to name a few.
Kidd and the Nets found themselves even better in the 02-03 season. Now a seasoned team with postseason experience, they capitalized on that experience and dominated the 2003 postseason, winning 10 straight games at one point, sweeping Boston and Detroit in back-to-back series. Back in the Finals, this time against the veteran Spurs, they had a legitimate chance to win the series, until their untimely collapse in the fourth quarter of game six. A double digit lead, a chance to extend the series to a deciding seventh game, a chance to bring a title banner to the rafters of the cavernous Meadowlands arena, gone.
Rumors swirled that offseason. Free agent Kidd was heading to San Antonio, the same team who just defeated his Nets in the Finals. That young Jersey boy who had by this time become attached to the Nets, and especially Kidd, panicked. The Nets without Jason Kidd? That would never work.
The Jersey boy could breathe again when Kidd decided he had unfinished business in New Jersey and re-signed with the Nets. In 2004, the Nets looked poised to make the phrase “third time’s the charm” a reality. But they were the Nets, that second fiddle team to the Knicks, not to mention the Knicks couldn’t muster a winning record, and something was bound to kill them. In ’02, it was Shaq, ’03 was a blown fourth quarter led, and now it was Kidd’s knee. In game seven of the East semifinals, Kidd’s knee was in such bad shape he couldn’t score or run an effective offense. The Nets scored 69 points in that game, Kidd had none. The Nets were done.
That was the last year you could say the Nets had legitimate title hopes, and also legitimate ties to New Jersey. The Nets were sold that summer to developer Bruce Ratner, who envisioned the Nets headlining his colossal real estate project in Brooklyn. Ratner refused to pay Kenyon Martin, a key piece in the Nets run to the finals, and sent him packing to Denver. Popular, and important, role players Kerry Kittles, Lucious Harris, and Rodney Rodgers were also shown the door. Jason Kidd would later declare the Nets were broken up too early, and he was right.
After a beyond awful start in the ’04-’05 season with Kidd sidelined from knee surgery, the Nets traded for Toronto star Vince Carter, a steal for the Nets, seeing as they traded loose parts for an All-Star. Carter and a healthy Kidd rejuvenated the Nets and they climbed out of the cellar of the East to make the playoffs on the final day in the eighth spot. But with Kidd, Carter, and budding star Richard Jefferson, they had a new big three that gave fans hope again. The big three would certainly give the Nets firepower and led them to the playoffs two more years, winning 49 games and the Atlantic Division in 2006. But that core could not get the Nets past the second round of the playoffs, and Jason Kidd realized it was time for a change of scenery for him. The Nets traded Kidd in February of 2008 to Dallas for point guard Devin Harris. Exactly six years after that Jersey boy attended his first Nets game, his favorite player was sent packing.
After the Kidd trade, the Nets went back to being a mediocre team at best and the dismantling of the team began. Jefferson, following a season where he averaged over 22 points per game, was traded to Milwaukee on draft day 2008. Vince Carter lasted another season in New Jersey, one which saw him become the true leader of the team and give one of his best efforts, before being shipped off to Orlando for nothing more than cap space. Devin Harris, who had averaged 21 points and received an invitation to the All-Star game, and young center Brook Lopez, who impressed in his rookie season, were left to build around.
And of course, every Nets fan knows what happened from there. They endured an abominable 12-70 season in 2009, in which they started 0-18. Mikhail Prohorov, a Russian billionaire, purchased the team and agreed to fund Ratner’s Brooklyn project. He also promised to land a free agent in the summer of 2010, which he did not. Devin Harris fell off the map and reverted back to a reliable, but average point guard. The Nets were in shambles.
In the winter of 2011, the Nets were struggling and failed to land Carmelo Anthony in a trade that they had been trying to accomplish for several months. After fans all but lost hope, General Manager Billy King put together a blockbuster deal for Utah star guard Deron Williams. It was the break the Nets needed, but with a catch. Williams was to be a free agent in the summer of 2012 and the Nets would need to do more to convince him to stay. Queue the “Dwightmare.”
The Nets’ final season in the Garden State was tumulus at best. They struggled during the lockout-shortened season even with Williams at the helm. The Nets seemed destined to land Dwight Howard, as they were reportedly his favored destination, but of course, failed. Fans were uninterested in the lame duck team more concerned with Brooklyn than their product on the court at the Prudential Center. And it all comes to an end on Monday. The Nets say they will be celebrating their thirty five years in New Jersey, which remains to be seen. But whether or not they celebrate their heritage correctly, one thing is for sure, those dedicated, Jersey-bred fans will be watching.
And what happened to that young Jersey boy who fell in love with the Kidd-led Nets? He stuck with them as he grew up, through the good and the bad, hoping for some kind of lucky break. He was ecstatic when he learned of the Williams trade, seeing parallels to the trade that brought Kidd from Phoenix. He hoped for a Howard trade, which he never got. But through the highs and lows, he was a Nets fan. He is one of the forgotten few New Jerseyans who have continued to support the team, even as they focused more on Brooklyn. He is a Jersey boy who hates to see his Nets ditch the Garden State. But, he can see the light at the end of the Brooklyn Bridge. That is, if Williams stays. And if Williams leaves, well, they can change their affiliation but they’re still the Nets.