I don't imagine there are too many of you who are New Jersey Nets fans, mostly because I'm reasonably sure there aren't that many New Jersey Nets fans to begin with.
As a sports-loving child of Central New Jersey, the Nets, who played their final game ever in New Jersey last night, will always have a dubious place in my heart.
They say that NJ is cut up into two discernible sections. North Jersey and South Jersey. I grew up in a township called Old Bridge in Middlesex County. It's one of those NJ suburbs surrounded by suburbs so you're not quite sure where one ends and the next one begins. That also made it feel extremely far removed from any kind of metropolis, be in New York City or Philadelphia.
I considered us not North Jersey and not South Jersey but Central Jersey, a kind of middle-ground that isn't necessarily influenced by either of the two metro areas that border the state. I realize now that I was living a lie.
Look at Middlesex County on a map. That's North Jersey, albeit the southernmost point. Not to mention it's 40 miles from Manhattan and 75 miles from Philadelphia.
Of course that's all statistics. The true measure of whether or not you're in North Jersey or South Jersey is which sports teams the locals support. If you take a random sampling and a good percentage of the townfolk root for New York teams, you're probably in North Jersey. Conversely, if you find a lot of Sixers and Flyers fans, guess what...you're in South Jersey.
If you find a Duke fan, punch them in the face.
Now, New Jersey also has teams of its own, as you know. There were the Nets, the Devils and, in theory, the Giants and the Jets.
Old Bridge is roughly 35 miles from East Rutherford, NJ, where all four of those teams played in my youth (80's and 90's). Depending on Turnpike traffic, it takes about 45 minutes to get there. To give you perspective, it's roughly the same distance that Cortland is from Syracuse.
I attended school in Old Bridge from the time I was in kindergarten at James A. McDivitt Elementary School to the time I was 17, graduating from Old Bridge High School (Go Knights!). I knew hundreds of kids, not to mention hundreds more parents, siblings, friends of families and everyone else that you come into contact with in your daily life as a kid. And in all that time, I met three New Jersey Nets fans.
Drive over to Cortland right now. Find ten sports fans. Ask them if they root for Syracuse in basketball or football. If more than three of them don't say yes, I'll be completely shocked.
Granted, I came of age in the early 90's. Of the many horrible stretches in Nets' history, my childhood seemed to line up perfectly with their very worst. The core of my childhood sports fandom, when nothing in my life was more important than sports, was 1987 to 1994, give or take. In that time the Nets had a winning record once, made the playoffs three times, losing in the first round each time and finished with a winning percentage below .400 six of the nine years.
It's funny looking back that these were also the Derrick Coleman days of the Nets. Not yet a Syracuse fan, I had no real affinity for the big man at that point in my life. He was just another Net that failed to live up to expectations. It's what we just expected from them.
I was a de facto New York Knicks fan, though my interest in the team waned long ago. It's mostly due to the fact that Patrick Ewing responded to my letter to him with an autographed postcard wishing my good luck. That's pretty much all it took (plus, as you may have read, I had some issues with who I spent my childhood rooting for in college basketball). But it's weird that, despite the fact that the Nets were much more accessible and I attended way more Nets games than Knicks games as a kid, it was never really a question.
Most kids I knew were Knicks fans, if anything. There were the frontrunner Lakers fans and Celtics fans scattered in there, and there were A LOT of Charlotte Hornets Starter Jackets in my middle school. But otherwise it was Knicks fans and then everyone else.
Winning had something to do with it. The Nets were losers and the Knicks were...in theory...winners. I always thought East Rutherford, for all its benefits, was a bit of a hindrance. Unlike Madison Square Garden or the Carrier Dome, there's no reason to you to be anywhere near Brendan Byrne Arena (now Izod Center) unless you were going to a Devils and Nets game. There was no chance you were ever going to be hanging out nearby and decide to stop by The Byrne to check out the Nets. You were either going there or you weren't, and clearly, most weren't.
Even the Nets eventual "glory days" and two NBA Finals appearances, which occurred long after I moved out of NJ, will be remembered as the saddest NBA Finals run in history. Those two Nets teams, the second of which did put up a decent fight against the San Antonio Spurs, maintain an air of Buffalo Bills-ishness around their legacy. The perception being that the Eastern Conference was so bad, even the Nets made it to the Finals...and look what happened!
I remember back in the 90's when rumors began swirling that the Devils might move to North Carolina. I was crestfallen. I loved the Devils and couldn't imagine life without their red and then-green jerseys. The idea of them playing somewhere else with a different name, different color scheme and different identity scared thirteen-year-old me to death. It scared a lot of other folks too as I remember many fans putting up a big fight.
As far as I remember, there was never any real threat of the Nets leaving New Jersey. Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe there were a lot of almost-moves before this Brooklyn jump. But if there were, that just shows you how little anyone cared.
When asked the other day about the Nets leaving New Jersey, blowhard Governor Chris Christie said "good riddance." While that seems a bit much (though exactly how I'd expect him to say it), in a way it probably does mirror the sentiment of the New Jersey sports fan. I'm sure there are a lot of Nets fans bummed out by the move, especially young ones who latched on to the franchise after those NBA Finals runs. But for the most part, I can't imagine there are too many people kicking up a fuss. Not even the three Nets fans I knew in school.
As a general sports fan, I love the idea of the Nets in Brooklyn. The rivalry between them and the Knicks will get kicked up ten notches and that's before you throw in whatever screwball antics will come from Mikhail Prokhorov vs. James Dolan.
I don't live in New Jersey anymore but the pang of my home state losing its longtime NBA team just isn't there. Even now if the Devils ever moved from NJ, it would affect me, even though I'm one-tenth the fan I was as a kid. And God forbid the Giants, in some apocalyptic scenario, ever bolted for, say, Portland (By all means, take the Jets...). NJ will move on and do just fine without an NBA franchise, especially this NBA franchise.
The one thing that will always bug me about the Nets. Why did they keep that name? Why are they STILL keeping that name? No "brand guru" can convince me that the Nets is a brand worth holding onto. I get why they initially named the team that, to harmonize the franchise with the Mets and the Jets, but even as a child I thought it was just the lamest name possible.
The WNBA didn't exist yet and nine-year-old me thought it was the kind of franchise name that the WNBA would say, "Uh, no thanks. Maybe add a few more Z's to the end and we'll think about it."
There was this fantastic idea once to rename the team the Swamp Dragons. Maybe you think that's an awful name for a group of professional basketball players, but I say nay. It's a glorious name. Imagine the logo! Imagine the mascot! It would have completely changed the moribund identity of this flailing franchise and given them an actual personality. And if it really didn't work, you could have always just shortened it to the New Jersey Dragons later on and everyone would have been fine.
According to legend, every single NBA owner approved the name change expect one...the owner of the New Jersey Nets. And so, they remained the Nets.
Sounds about right.