Wait a minute now… Um, these guys were supposed to be special, right? Weren’t they supposed to be the cool underdog of the common people in New York City? Yeah, it seems to me that was a major selling point of the Brooklyn Nets’ move from Newark to New York City: The allure of Brooklyn would bring in free agents who would make the team competitive while a natural rivalry with the New York Knicks would quickly develop. The Nets were supposed to offer an outlet to the more blue-collar workers in New York City who were fed up with The James Dolan Demolition Show. They were supposed to be the respected alternative. They were supposed to become a team that wasn’t going to be an embarrassment to New York City sports fans.
They weren’t supposed to turn into a shitshow.
It’s hard to think that the Nets were the coolest team in the NBA just a few years ago, and that they were actually competitive back then to boot. They were New Jersey’s team, they made their switch to Brooklyn, made big trades for talented players, and regularly fought to the wire against the Eastern Conference’s titans. They went to the playoffs. For a brief window of time, they looked like they were going to turn into everything their owners were trying to get the public to buy into them being. They were even threatening to siphon off the established Knickerbockers fanbase and maybe force James Dolan into letting someone who knows basketball to run his team.
Anyway… The Nets’ journey to this point starts with trucking magnate Arthur J. Brown in the American Basketball Association in 1967. Brown cut his ownership teeth in the Amateur Athletic Union, so he was seen as a great pick to run The New York Team in the upstart ABA. The team given to him was called the New York Americans, and Brown had them all set to play at the 69th Regiment Armory right in Manhattan because if you’re trying to be The New York Team in a just-starting sports league, you need to go all out! Unfortunately for Brown and the Americans, there was a major problem facing them: The New York Knicks, who played the territorial pissing card and forced the Americans back out with just three months to go before the opening tip-off. And this being Manhattan, there weren’t a whole lot of options left for a team in short-notice need of a place to play its sport. After being tossed from the Armory, everywhere else the Americans tried was either booked solid or didn’t want to risk pissing off the Knicks. A last-minute scramble got them a place in the Teaneck Armory in Teaneck, New Jersey. To reflect the move, the team changed its name to the New Jersey Americans, although the proper organization’s name remained the New York Americans.
The Americans did pretty well in their first season! They tied the Kentucky Colonels for the fourth playoff spot in their division, and that caused a bit of a problem. See, the bookers at the Teaneck Armory apparently weren’t expecting the Americans to either last very long or win that many games, because the Armory was booked solid for the playoffs. Which sent the Americans scrambling for a last-minute replacement again. They found one in Commack, New York: The Long Island Arena. Unfortunately, the Long Island Arena had to be booked sight unseen. When the Colonels and Americans showed up for their first game in the playoffs, there was dismay all around that there were missing boards and screws around everywhere. One player said that when he stepped down on one board, he saw the other end come up. There was no padding on the backboards or basket supports, one basket was higher than the other, and there was condensation still lingering from a hockey game the previous night. The Colonels decided they wanted no part of a game under those conditions, and ABA commissioner George Mikan sided with them. He forfeited the game to the Colonels.
The Americans had planned to move to Newark for the following season, but that fell through, and they were forced to stay at the Long Island Arena for another year. That was also the year they decided to change their name to the New York Nets, because a net was basketball equipment and the name gave them a small semblance of solidarity with the other two renegade outcast teams in New York City, baseball’s Mets and football’s Jets. The team finished with a putrid 17-61 record, good enough for last, and ended up shuffling 23 players on their roster. What they needed was a star, and what luck! The 1969 Draft had a huge prospect from UCLA by the name of Lew Alcindor! Alcindor was a New York City native who was interested in playing for his hometown! Alcindor himself later admitted that he was also more drawn to the ABA because the NBA was steeped in in traditionalism, and Alcindor – who later converted to Islam and changed his name to the one he’s best known as, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – was not a fan of traditionalism. And since the first pick of the NBA Draft belonged to the Milwaukee Bucks that year, the Nets figured they had the upper hand. But Alcindor pulled a small power play when he said he would only hear one offer from both teams. The Nets bid too low, and the probably-disappointed Alcindor headed to Milwaukee.
The Nets, however, DID manage to improve the next season. Sure, they also relocated – AGAIN – to the Island Garden in West Hempstead and their attendance tripled, but the big deal was that they got better. Levern Tart was a top-three scorer, and the Nets not only got into the playoffs, but were actually able to play in them this time. Then in the 1970 offseason, the team finally acquired its star: Rick Barry. The Nets made the playoffs again, moved to the Nassau Veterans’ Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale, and finally went to their first Finals in 1972. They fell to the Indiana Pacers, and Barry left afterward, sending the Nets into rebuilding mode. But it wasn’t too much longer before everything came together; in 1973, they got Julius Erving from the Virginia Squires. Dr. J led the Nets to 55 wins en route to an MVP season, and the Nets returned to the Finals, where they took out the Utah Stars. They won 58 games the following season, but were knocked out of the playoffs in the first round by the Spirits of St. Louis.
In 1975, team forward Wendell Ladner was killed when his plane was struck by lightning, but that didn’t slow the Nets down. They returned to the Finals in the 1976 season as Dr. J won another MVP Award. The opposing Denver Nuggets gave them everything they could handle in a six-game series for the ages. And that was a hell of a way to close things out, because the 1976 season was the ABA’s final season, and the Nets have the distinction of winning the ABA’s final championship.
In 1976, the merger between the ABA and NBA was completed, and the Nets, Pacers, Nuggets, and San Antonio Spurs all joined the NBA. The Nets and Nuggets had applied to join earlier, but were held back by a court order saying they had to play out their time in the ABA. And the Nets looked poised to dominate for several years after making a trade to the Kansas City Kings for Nate Archibald. Unfortunately for the Nets, their admission price for joining the NBA – after invitation – was a $3.2 million admission fee. Coupled with the $4.8 million the NBA forced the Nets to hand over to the Knicks for invading their turf, the team was left short of funding. The owner was forced to pull back on a raise he had promised Dr. J, and Dr. J refused to show up for camp. The Nets tried to finagle their way out of it by giving D. J to the Knicks in exchange for dropping the fee, but the Knicks decided they would rather have the money. “Fortunately,” for the Nets, though, the Philadelphia 76ers offered a way out, and if you’re noting the quotation marks there, there’s a reason for them: The Sixers would give the Nets $3 million, but the Nets had to send Dr. J over to Philly in return. Basically, the Nets had to pay millions and give up their superstar just to get a spot in the NBA. That being the case, they didn’t try to fool anyone into thinking they could compete in the 1977 season. During the year, Archibald broke his foot, and the Nets went 22-60 for the worst record in the league. They did end up setting one weird record, though: Starters Tim Bassett, Al Skinner, Bubbles Hawkins, Dave Wohl, and Kim Hughes were all southpaws. That made the Nets the first – and so far, still the only – team in league history with an all-left-handed starting lineup.
By now, the New York Nets were established as the definite beta team. While the Mets and Jets had both played their hearts into respectability by winning titles, the Nets didn’t hold any such delusions, so the team moved back to New Jersey in 1977. What followed another fiasco having to do with the Knicks fucking them over yet again: The Knicks threatened to block the move because it would have threatened their exclusive rights to New Jersey. The Nets finally found their guts and sued the Knicks. The lawsuit was settled by the State of New Jersey, and the Nets were forced to fork over yet more cash to make the move. To celebrate and officialize the move, the team changed its name to the New Jersey Nets. And in 1979, there was a better cause for celebration: The Nets, led by Bernard King, made their first playoff appearance. They were downed in two games by the Sixers.
Although the Nets are generally considered to have been in rebuilding mode for the first years of the 80’s, they did have an ace: Their coach was Larry Brown. Brown is known as one of basketball’s great strategists, and he was always able to maximize anything he had. And he was able to guide the Nets to a handful of winning seasons with nothing right until he quit because a better job came along at the University of Kansas. (He tends to do that.) The Nets made the playoffs right after Brown left, but they lost to the Knicks in the first round. It was in 1984 that the Nets finally fielded a team that really got any attention. They went 45-37 and went to the second round of the playoffs, where they were dispatched by the Bucks.
Things were looking up in 1986, and the Nets even started strong. Unfortunately, Darryl Dawkins was then lost to injury and Michael Ray Richardson failed his third drug test, which got him suspended for life. That started a long, slow descent into the void. Injuries hampered the Nets through the 80’s. Dawkins hurt himself again by lipping in his bathtub, and that ended his career. Otis Birdsong suffered a shin stress fracture. Dawkins was traded for John Bagley and Keith Lee, but they both got hurt at the start of the 1988 season, and Tony Brown went down with them. Also, the team ended up taking Dennis Hopson in the Draft over Reggie Miller and Scottie Pippen while Orlando Woolridge was suspended for violating the league substance policy. The Nets bottomed out in the 1990 season, when they won only 17 games.
With the first pick of the 1990 Draft, the Nets picked Derrick Coleman. In 1991, they got the second pick, which they used on Kenny Anderson. Drazen Petrovic came through a trade with the Portland Trail Blazers, and Chuck Daly was hired as coach in 1992. Although injuries sidelined Anderson and Petrovic near the end of the season and the team closed with a 1-10 record in their last few games, they still made the playoffs and lost a hard five-game series against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Petrovic was killed in a car accident in the offseason, but the Nets still won 45 games the next year, losing in the playoffs to the Knicks this time. Daly resigned in 1994, Butch Beard was hired to coach, and the Nets suddenly had a title they didn’t ask for and didn’t want: Sports Illustrated ran a cover story on how selfish NBA players were. Coleman was on the cover as the poster child.
John Calipari was hired as the coach to switch things up, and the Nets pretty much completely dumped their roster. The only early-90’s player they kept was Jayson Williams. Everyone else, from Keith Van Horn to Tim Thomas to Lucious Harris, was a pickup, and the Nets played their way back to the playoffs again. Williams was an All-Star, but he barely made a difference in playoff action, when the best thing you could say about the Nets was that they ALMOST beat the Chicago Bulls in two games. And when I say in two games, I mean they almost won two individual games in a three-game sweep by the Bulls. I’d say they were one of Michael and the Jordanaires’ victims, but that’s just not the case. The truth was that the Nets were strictly a middling team that had no real shot at winning a title, and that was a best-case scenario. No one outside of North New Jersey cared about them – New York City had some great Knicks teams to fawn over, and South New Jersey looked after the Sixers. Calipari was basically in and out, Stephon Marbury was signed but only played for a few years, and Williams suffered two tibia injuries which cost him his career. Yeah, the Nets had been reduced to being a team that was a weird rumor. The New Jersey Nets? Who cared? Who noticed?
In 2001, the Nets traded their first round Draft pick to the Houston Rockets for Richard Jefferson, Jason Collins, and Brandon Armstrong. Later that year, they traded Marbury to the Phoenix Suns for Jason Kidd. Already a league veteran and established star by then, Kidd would spend the next eight years leading his new team and becoming Mr. Net. Kidd was the guy who finally got the Nets out of the Knicks’ formidable shadow and eclipsed them for a brief time. The 2002 season was the best year of the Nets’ history; the team won its division for the first time, then defeated the Pacers and Charlotte Hornets in the playoffs. In the conference finals, they ran into the Celtics, and Kidd’s eye got swollen when he made a dive at a loose ball. He needed 32 stitches, but the Nets took the series in six games and faced the Los Angeles Lakers in their first-ever Finals. After falling in an inauspicious sweep, the Nets recovered the next season. A trade with the Sixers got them Dikembe Mutombo, but this was a move that didn’t work out very well. Mutombo broke his wrist early in the season and had to sit most of it out, then differences with his coach meant he wasn’t playing in the playoffs very often. But the Nets still won their division again and returned to the Finals, this time to face the Spurs. While the Nets had a worse record than the year before, they were a better team, and instead of going down in a sweep, they managed to turn the Finals into a real series. The Spurs, who were probably better than the Lakers, needed six games to shut down the Nets. And after the season, it was the Spurs who gave Kidd the ultimate compliment to the Nets by asking him to join them as a free agent. Kidd turned them down to stay in New Jersey.
The Nets got Alonzo Mourning for 2004, which… Well, it was what happened with Mutombo. But the Nets won their division again, but this time they didn’t return to the Finals – they fell in the second round to the eventual champion Pistons. Although the Nets only won their division one more time over the next decade – in 2006 – they did rise up and steal the spotlight while the Knicks languished under James Dolan and Isiah Thomas. They signed some great talent during those years – Clifford Robinson and Shareef Abdur-Rahim among them, but the one that stood out was superstar Vince Carter. Carter and Kidd kept the team competitive until Kidd was traded to the Dallas Mavericks in 2008. (He finally won his title there in 2011.) The next year, Carter was traded to the Orlando Magic. Brook Lopez and Devin Harris stood out, but the Nets were out of gas, and it showed in the 2010 season when they finished 12-70. While the team made plays at LeBron James, Dwayne Wade, and Chris Bosh during the offseason, all three of them signed with the Miami Heat instead. Them rumors of a trade for Carmelo Anthony distracted everyone, and that fell through as well; Anthony ended up getting traded to the Knicks. But when he was, the Nets made a surprising trade with the Jazz the following week for Deron Williams.
In 2004, the Nets were sold to Bruce Ratner, and popular rapper Jay-Z also held a small ownership share. Both were proponents on taking the Nets to Brooklyn. All that needed to happen for the move was the completion of the Barclay’s Center. For a 21st Century team move, there was surprisingly little drama surrounding it. Yes, fans in New Jersey were pissed off to a point, but the team was only going across the Hudson River, to a city a lot of people who reside in New Jersey actually work in and commute to daily. The Nets would be the first professional sports team in Brooklyn since baseball’s Dodgers, and they decided to carry that name – instead of the New York Nets, they would proudly wear a new insignia as the Brooklyn Nets. And with Lopez and Williams, the Nets were back to being a competitive team. They took their new home in 2012, but after a few good years, they started using the Yankee method of team-building: Sign big, fading stars to exorbitant contracts! From Lopez and Williams to other big signees like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, the Nets at one point had a starting lineup with an incredible 35 All-Star Game appearances between them. They also brought back Jason Kidd to coach. Kidd, however, was soon fired, and after being decent for a few years, the Nets hit rock bottom over the last few years. There’s a big mess in Brooklyn that isn’t going to be cleaned up for some time, and the uber-cool vibes the Nets radiated upon moving to Brooklyn aren’t doing them a damn bit of good anymore.
The Nets have retired the numbers of Drazen Petrovic, John Williamson, Jason Kidd, Bill Melchionni, Julius Erving, and Buck Williams. That’s a sporadic set of retired numbers if there ever was one. Erving was Dr. J, and he only played for the Nets when they were an ABA team. He may be the best player to have ever won titles in both the ABA and the NBA, where him and Moses Malone took the 1983 Sixers to an NBA Championship. Petrovic was only in the NBA for five years, evenly split between the Nets and the Blazers after playing in Europe for Sibenka, Cibona, and Real Madrid. They’ve also fielded Bob McAdoo, Bernard King, and Joe Johnson. ONe of their more notorious players was Jayson Williams. Williams on the surface wasn’t such a bad guy – he was gregarious and generous to a fault. He wrote a book about life in the NBA in the late 90’s called Loose Balls, which really wasn’t very good. But what the book contained that got scant attention was a bunch of anecdotes about two passions that Williams had: Alcohol and guns. Now, there’s nothing wrong with either one of those, provided they’re used properly by someone who knows how. Unfortunately, Williams wrote several anecdotes in Loose Balls which feature the worst possible ways to use both. In one, he nearly killed Wayne Chrebet, a receiver for the NFL’s New York Jets. In another, he threatened the uncle of Manute Bol. Yet another featured him deciding to let a friend drown because he had trouble climbing into a boat. (The friend eventually did manage to climb in and lived.) In 2002, Williams was giving a tour of his house to players for the Harlem Globetrotters and, like any good host should be, he was drunk off his ass and screwing around with a loaded shotgun. The gun went off and killed the limo driver, and Williams tried to cover it to make it look like a suicide. Although acquitted for the most serious charges, he was convicted on four charges of trying to cover the incident up, and eventually pled guilty to aggravated assault.
The Nets made a great history of moving around. All of their moves were in and around the New York City and Newark metropolitan area in northern New Jersey, which means fans haven’t had to be up in arms every time the Nets found a new place to play. It’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder about the limits of fandom. A team that moves away from its longtime home is one of the few excuses granted freely to a fan for switching teams outright. But New York City has sports teams littered all around its area. The New York Jets and New York Giants both play in New Jersey, and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils are frequently adopted by hockey fans in New York City. When the Nets moved, they were going back and forth across the turnpike, not to some distant outpost five states to the southwest.
Jay-Z is a minority owner of the Nets, but he’s the most visible and vocal owner of the team as well. When the Nets moved to Brooklyn in 2012, it was Jay-Z who came up with their new identifiers. He was the one who designed the new colors and logo, basing them all on the roll signs of the New York Metro. It’s largely through him that the Nets were able to spend their first couple of years in Brooklyn passing themselves off as the cool rebel alternative. To augment their efforts, the Nets also introduced a comic book series called BrooklynKnight, which was created with the help of fucking Marvel Comics. They even managed to get Jason Aaron and Mike Deodato to write the damn thing. And, taking a page from the Celtics, the Nets even went as far as to create a playing floor which they hoped to be known for. Now, on one hand, their floor did get attention. Unfortunately, that’s one of the few things the Nets have going for them. The reason Boston’s parquet floor became famous is not just because of the unique design, but because the Celtics are a storied team with a rich winning tradition, and their floor got to be integrated into their mystique. The Nets don’t have any such strengths, so they’re just seen as a very bad basketball team with a cool uniform and cool floor.
The embodiment of cool that the Nets picked up gave the Knicks a scare at the time, so the natural rivalry between the two of them developed. Now the Knicks and Nets developed a rivalry similar to that of the old Brooklyn Dodgers/New York Giants rivalry, and another new dimension was added when the NHL’s New York Islanders took up residence at the Nets’ home arena as well while the New York Rangers share Madison Square Garden with the Knicks. For a hot moment, it looked like all the marketing was going to pay off, and the Nets were going to be a real threat to the Knicks’ supremacy. They traded for Deron Williams just after the Knicks nabbed Carmelo Anthony. Both Williams and Anthony led their teams to the playoffs. Both tried to build themselves up with star power – the Knicks had Amar’e Stoudemire and Tyson Chandler while the Nets were fielding Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson. But with the Nets having fallen from contention, the universe realigned back to the way it was before, and despite the Knicks possibly being worse, they’re still the alpha team which can fall back on its generations of history and fans.
Like every other two-team area, there’s an alpha team and a beta team in New York City basketball. But unlike the others, the team that’s actually better to root for isn’t quite as clear cut. So the question becomes one of what kind of attachment you make to either team. The strengths here are that the New York Knicks are the more historic and regal team, but the Brooklyn Nets feel more like a peoples’ team.
Jay-Z has a voice in owning them; have the distinction of being The New York Team without actually being The New York Team; don’t have the pretension associated with alpha teams; uniforms and image are the height of cool
That image is the only thing the Nets have going for them; big star contracts bit them in the ass a couple of years ago; have fielded numerous players that were just plain assholes; two ABA Championships they won are basically discounted; have a funny continuity
Should you be a fan?
Well, it helps if you have some kind of draw to The New York Team, because that’s the only thing besides marketing the Brooklyn Nets have going for them. I have two basketball teams, and one is the Knicks, so, in my official capacity as a Knicks fan… You’re not going to be particularly well off adopting one of those teams above the other. You’d have to be hell-bent on adopting one of The New York Teams to even be considering either one at this point.