Friday, April 27, 2012

No Depression in Heaven

Professional basketball in New Jersey ended with an all too-fitting punctuation mark: A limp, ill-advised Johan Petro 20-footer. He didn’t make it. Then there was the odd coda in Toronto that was more a masochistic performance art piece than basketball game, but actually also ended with Johan Petro. This time he made the 20-footer.

And before family members even got a chance to identify the body, the thing I love has been scrubbed and bleached, the parts reapportioned and shipped to Brooklyn. I am a lifelong Nets fan and NJ resident, so I am sad. But Brooklyn seems like a very good place for professional basketball, so I’m also excited. But it’s like, why couldn’t New Jersey have been a better place for professional basketball? But Brooklyn’s not that far away and I have a lot of good friends who live there. But why does New York get to have another thing that’s good? I don’t know. Emotions are complicated, you know?

Complicating my feelings even further is the fact that the New Jersey Nets have kind of been one of the most important things in my life. Oops.

My lifelong preoccupation with the NBA began in the ninth row of Continental Airlines Arena, right behind the visitors’ bench. I don’t really remember the time before I went to Nets games. My aunt was a long-time season ticket holder and, as is the case with every Nets season ticket holder ever, often seemed to have extra tickets. The team was mostly not very good in those first few years I got to attend, but I didn’t care. I was hooked with each loss I got to see up close. And these seats were seriously close—close enough for my father to get into a shouting match with Paul Pierce one night during Pierce’s impressive reign as top villain of the Meadowlands. It was earth-shattering to sit within spitting distance of the dudes I learned about every Saturday from watching “NBA Inside Stuff With Ahmad Rashad.”

Even though I didn’t yet fully understand the tragic history of the franchise, I quickly learned that to stay sane as a Nets fan, you have to appreciate the treasures that the other 29 teams have to offer. That’s why, when my aunt started to ask me which games I wanted to attend, the Answer was almost always Allen Iverson or some other star from some other team. This arrangement worked and we were all very happy.

Then the two finals runs came at what turned out to be a pretty vital time for me. My mother had just died in August 2001, a scant few weeks before Jason Kidd made his opening argument for his hall of fame bid. With my sister at college, my father and I were left on our own for a while. Our relationship has always been great, but there were now some quiet crevices that filled the house in my mother’s absence. No one would ever have believed it possible, but the New Jersey Nets became a positive beacon that filled the silence as we ate dinner and tried to breath again. There wasn’t a lot for me to believe in back then except for Jason Kidd.

It wasn’t just the success of the team that eased my disposition, but the brand of basketball. Byron Scott’s teams lived off turnovers to spring the fast break, led by one of the league’s true savants. Watching Kenyon and Jefferson flank Kidd as he changed the direction of the game and barreled down the court with confidence and zeal was my anti-depressant. Every alley-oop was an injection of serotonin, every no-look pass was dopamine.

Even when the team struggled in the half-court (and they often did so mightily), it was inspiring to see Kenyon ignore all of his offensive deficiencies and bully his way to an ugly bucket just because he knew the team needed it. I’m certainly not saying that at the time I recognized this as a metaphor for overcoming adversity, but I do know the visceral, cathartic release I got from these plays probably saved me from a few grey hairs and panic attacks.

(And no, I’m not going to check any of the stats on this. I don’t care about their actual pace, or defensive rating, or Kenyon’s true shooting percentage. I’ll just hold on to what’s in my head.)

And this is to say nothing of actually attending games. Continental Airlines Arena became my sanctuary in the swamp. It gave me an opportunity to forget about anything real for a few hours—something that I couldn’t find in many other places (shout-out to movies!)—and wrap myself in the concentrated focus and passion of 18,000 people. The standard, snarky Internet response to this goes something like, “Imagine how good you would have felt if the arena was actually filled with Nets fans.” Because the general chorus seems to be saying that there was never support in New Jersey, even for the Eastern Conference championship teams; they “couldn’t even sellout games during the NBA Finals.” Well, I don’t care if they didn’t sell every seat. That arena was a raucous tent revival for those years; people raged. Visiting teams did not have an easy go when stumbling into the swamp. I was there, I know this. I’ll concede that there have been louder NBA arenas, but let’s not act like a few dozen people showed up by accident and sat on their hands.

Look, I understand that basketball—and professional sports on the whole—don’t really matter in the grand scheme. They’re nothing more than a business, a way for uber-talents to become millionaires and a way for billionaires to make sure more people know their names. But if you let it—and I’m not necessarily endorsing this—sports can mean so goddamn much. And that has been the case for me and the New Jersey Nets. I didn’t realize it at the time, or really for a bunch of years, but I really needed those teams.

The truth is, as Nets fans, we’re incredibly lucky to not be losing our team altogether. Look at what happened to Seattle, what’s happening in Sacramento, and what very well might happen to some other small market team in the future. The team’s leaving NJ, but let's be honest, it’s probably not your first friend to bail on the Garden State and move to Brooklyn. I know you’re not thrilled, but you'll see them every once in a while. Barely anything’s really changing: The same newspapers will cover them (if you’re into that sort of thing) and they’ll be on the same television channel. But now, in Brooklyn, the team will be given more respect for the mere fact that they've hopped two rivers. It may not be fair, but it's reality. If nothing else, Nets fans won’t have to deal with scoffing bartendenders anymore when they ask if the bar can put the Nets' game on one fucking television. Because that was getting old.

So now that Johan Petro put the final, crooked semicolon in the run-on sentence that is the Nets, we can finally move on with some stability and status—two things the Nets have not often had. It should be nice.

I know pretty much everyone is saying how the Nets never really worked in New Jersey; that they were never really embraced by the state. Well, I’m a little out of breath here, so all I’ll say is this: I cared about them and am going to miss them playing in New Jersey, and I know there are many other people who feel the same way. Yes, they were a punch line. But they were our punch line and a lot of us liked them very much.

So. Rest In peace Sly. R.I.P. Marco G. R.I.P. Mini Sly. R.I.P. Dancing Guy. R.I.P. Mr. Whammy. R.I.P. Power ‘n’ Motion. R.I.P. Tony Soprano. R.I.P. Bruce Willis. R.I.P. Blue Man Group Defense Clip. R.I.P. Migraine Headaches. R.I.P. VC Threes. R.I.P. Whoop-de-damn-do. R.I.P. Zoran Planinic. R.I.P. Bad Ass Yellow Boy. R.I.P. Every Williams Ever. R.I.P. Common’s Character In Just Wright. R.I.P. Sweet Little Lawrence Frank. R.I.P. 13-0. R.I.P. 12-72. R.I.P. Teaneck Armory. R.I.P. the RAC. R.I.P. Brendan Byrne. R.I.P. Continental. R.I.P. Izod. R.I.P. Prudential. R.I.P. Drazen. R.I.P. Yinka. R.I.P. Everything Else.

Rest In Peace New Jersey Nets. Thanks for stopping by. Let me go get your jackets, they’re just on the bed. Did you want any of the leftovers to bring to work for lunch this week? No? You’re good? Ok, well then... talk to you soon. Drive safe.


  1. It certainly isn't easy to top 'Say Queensbridge' but you managed to do so with ease. Sure Continental smelt like burnt popcorn but it was a significant part of my childhood as well.

    Signed - Row H behind the basket

  2. Well done, son, well done. I'm proud of you and am happy to be the guy who took you to most of those games. Maybe I can join you at a game in Brooklyn some night.

  3. Brian Mcknight got a shout out!

  4. P.S. Great photos by the way. Especially K-Mart's joyous smile.

  5. I can't say enough about this. But I also can't say anything. You know this shit hits home, and if I ever have to part with something that seems so unimportant but that actually means so much to me, I hope I can do it with half the eloquence.

    I love you, man.

  6. Thanks for all the kind words. Too much.

    (PS: Pat, his character was Scott McKnight. A little different.)

  7. Oh, also. This:

  8. Very impressive.

    Wondering what was said between your Pop and The Truth...?

  9. HUGE.

    Big Ups to George Mureson on NJ transit, and at Mt Fuji.


  10. Was re-reading this and got to my comment about Brian McKnight. I'm more than a little shame-faced...but then again you have the evidence that I've seen that movie.

    Still want to see Common in a Nets jersey too.