I’ve been an NBA mark for years. I’d watched the league as a kid, but I became a fan when the Knicks took Patrick Ewing with the #1 pick in the 1985 draft. For 11 seasons, I was a devoted Knicks fan. I cheered when Ewing made his first all-star team (even though he barely played, in the typical rite of passage for first-timers).
I didn’t understand the game and the team’s recent history well enough to lament the loss of Bernard King to a series of knee blowouts (the same injury I suffered in the spring of 1991). But I cheered when Bianchi and Pitino’s Bomb Squad made the playoffs, when Trent Tucker hit the 4-point play against Chicago with 0.1 left on the clock, when the Knicks swept the Sixers and several players broke out a broom and started sweeping the court. And that was just the high school years. The team fell apart through a series of bad trades and drafts (Jerrod Mustaf? Rod Strickland for Mo Cheeks?). A few years later, Pat Riley came in as coach and the team became a title-contender.
Those were exciting times, especially because Riley’s defense-first style meant every game was a low-scoring affair, which kept things really competitive. In college, my friend Mike, who wasn’t a hoops junkie like I am, watched games with me every Sunday on NBC. After a few weeks of nail-biting Knicks games, he said, “I can’t take this anymore! I’m gonna have a heart attack if I keep watching these things!” I knew where he was coming from.
Within a season, as the 1980s dominance of the Lakers and the Celtics waned, the Knicks were fighting Michael Jordan’s Bulls each year in the playoffs, then battling with the Pacers as the legend of Reggie Miller began. They were great times, even if the Knicks’ style was ugly. The ups and downs were phenomenal. I watched John Starks’ incredible playoff-dunk against Jordan and Horace Grant, Charles Smith’s failure to connect on a layup in that same series, Greg Anthony’s sucker-punch of Kevin Johnson, preceded by Doc Rivers’ spitting out of teeth after getting tripped on-court. I watched Ewing climb onto the scorers’ table in 1994, preening for the crowd like a gladiator, watched him blow a finger-roll against Indiana in 1995 to lose in the playoffs. Sure, Ewing was outplayed by Olajuwon in the 1994 Finals, but it was a heck of a series. And, yes, Starks missed a ton of shots in game 7 of that series, but Ewing’s demands for the ball in the fourth quarter of game 6 may’ve cost them more.
Anyway, what I’m saying is, I was a huge Knicks fan (and general NBA geek). That ended in 1997. Riley had bailed out on New York to take over the Miami Heat two seasons earlier. The teams squared off in the second round of the playoffs, winner to meet Jordan’s Bulls. The year before, Jordan had set the record for most wins in an NBA season (his team went 72-10) with the most ferociously sustained performance since the Lakers won 33 games in a row back in 1972. The Bulls ran through the eastern conference, going 11-1. The Knicks handed them their sole defeat and, after the series, Patrick Ewing made his standard comment after getting eliminated in the playoffs. He said, “We were the better team; we should’ve won this series.” As I said, this Bulls team had just set the record for the best record in the history of the NBA. But that was Patrick: great talent (not great enough to carry a team to a championship), hard worker, and a completely delusional view of the world. What’s not to like?
In 1996-97, the Knicks retooled their team solely to beat the Bulls. They romped in the first round of the playoffs, then took on Riley’s Heat in the second round. Riley had built the Heat as a mirror-image of the Knicks, right down to getting a Georgetown center a la Ewing in Alonzo Mourning. The Knicks, up 3-1 in the seven-game series, were in position to knock them off and face the Bulls, with their best chance of knocking off Jordan and getting back to the Finals.
The Knicks, as was their wont, blew game 5 badly. They were never good at closing out teams, almost always playing too loose in their first elimination game of a series. At the end of that game, Knick guard Charlie Ward took a cheap shot at the knees of Miami’s P.J. Brown. Brown, a foot taller than Ward, flipped him into the front row on the baseline of the court. A brawl ensued. A number of Knick players got off the bench and, because of league rules, were suspended for a game. Without their full complement of players, the Knicks lost in 7 games to Miami, which went on to get dusted by the Bulls. I decided on that night that I could no longer support the Knicks.
How could I keep cheering for a team that seemed to always find a way to let me down? After following the team devotedly throughout the season, I watched them melt down in a single moment, not even failing on the court, but through the stupidity of getting into a fight with Riley’s players.
I decided I’d had enough of having my expectations dashed. No more would I cheer for a basketball team all year long, only to be disappointed. I would cheer for a team with no expectations. I became a Nets fan.
The Nets, see, were one of the biggest jokes in the NBA. The ownership group at the time consisted of “The Secaucus Seven,” a bunch of investors who could never agree on a direction for the team, and left it constantly floundering. The Nets played at the Meadowlands, a cheap arena that looked even cheaper during the 1996 NCAA basketball finals, when a rainstorm revealed numerous leaks in the ceiling. It was a dump. The players hated being there. There was never hope of making the playoffs. Promising players developed terrible attitudes and were traded. Draft picks were disastrous. Coaches were re-treads. I’d found my new home.
I decided that cheering for the Nets would be fun. After all, there was no pressure. The team goes 30-52? That’s better than last year! After all, this team had won exactly one playoff series since it had joined the league in 1978. There was never the Riley-esque slow-and-steady progression to a championship. There was just a basketball team adrift, no real direction and no real location (the Meadowlands are out in the swamps of Jersey, as Bruce Springsteen would put it).
Within a year, unfortunately, the Nets became up-and-comers. The young college coach who took over was energizing the fans. The players came together and complemented each other’s strengths. No one was bickering about a contract. Just my luck: the Nets had turned the corner. The team put on a great run to make the playoffs, got swept by Jordan’s Bulls, and began making offseason plans to become a serious power in the NBA.
And I started to build expectations. When that season got underway, the key player on the squad turned his ankle and the Nets started the season 3-18. I learned that this wasn’t disappointment; with the Nets, this was standard operating procedure! So I got back to enjoying watching them lose. Mid-season, they traded for Stephon Marbury, their first star player in years. On April Fools day of that season (1999), the star player dived for a ball, and broke the leg of the Nets key rebounder and “glue” player, Jayson Williams (who went on to shoot his chauffeur in the chest with a shotgun). Those crazy Nets!
The next season, my buddy and I bought a 10-game ticket plan for the Nets. We watched them lose to a number of exciting teams that had great management and better players. At one point, during a game against the Heat, I turned to my buddy and said, ‘Stephon Marbury is out on the court with Lucious Harris, Stephen Jackson, Aaron Williams and Evan Eschmeyer. Those four guys shouldn’t even be in the NBA! And that’s our crunch-time squad!’
We went to the games. We watched Stephon put up 50 (in a losing effort, of course) against the Lakers. We ate hot dogs and pretzels. We had fun. We never expected them to win games, and they never let us down. The team even added the #1 pick in the draft that year, but he broke his leg midway through the season. Of course, since it was the Nets, he had also broken his leg late in his last college season. It was a risk, but the Nets drafted him anyway. His name is Kenyon Martin.
The Nets went 26-56 that season. My buddy & I re-upped for a 21-game plan. It was cheap: just $25/seat in the lower tier, and the games were all against great teams.
Then disaster struck. The Nets transformed in the off-season, trading Marbury for Jason Kidd, drafting well, and building a winner overnight.
Now, this isn’t as bad as I perversely make it sound. After all, going into that year, even Kidd said that a .500 season (41-41) would be a great accomplishment. That season, they became the best team in the east, rampaging over the competition and reaching the NBA Finals. Along the way, they played in the most exciting pro basketball game I’ve ever seen (game 5 against the Pacers in the first round of the playoffs). We were swept up, but the winning wasn’t expected, so that somehow made it acceptable. It was fun, and we went to half their home games, so we really got to see the players develop and grow.
They were blown out by the Lakers in the Finals, but that was expected. The next year, they got there again, but were beaten by the Spurs. I went into last season (just finished) with a certain ennui. The winning had gotten to me. I now thought about plans for how the team could remain a powerhouse for years to come. Kidd was going to decline a bit as he gets older, but Kenyon Martin’s ferocious defense and fire, combined with the all-around game of 2001 draft pick Richard Jefferson, would keep them competitive for years.
I’d forgotten the #1 lesson of being a Nets fan: success is an accident; you can only plan for failure.
This takes us to yesterday. This year’s NBA off-season has been filled with some pretty depressing turns. The most dominant player of the last 10 years just got traded. A star player who is on trial for sexual assault was given a 7-year/$140 million contract (voidable if he’s convicted: whew!). A key player convinced his team to drop his contract option for next year (he was to get paid $700,000), then took a big-money deal from another team. A player signed a deal to leave his current team, and watched his team owner write a lengthy blog entry about it.
And the Nets, who had changed the face of their team in the past three seasons, just traded Kenyon Martin away for three future draft picks because he wanted a big contract. The team is under new ownership, which plans to move the squad from New Jersey to Brooklyn, and decided that it’s not worth carrying around a huge payroll for the next few years. So the #1 pick is gone, the fiery leader is gone, the man who won a game last April by catching an opponent’s shot in mid-air is gone. In his place? Draft picks in a league where most players take years to develop.
Fans never turned out in huge numbers to Nets games. Even during the two runs to the Finals, the regular-season attendance was usually among the bottom five in the 29-team league. Tickets were expensive, traffic to and from the arena sucked, and there was (almost) always an overall feeling that the sky was about to fall in. Once the move to Brooklyn was announced, even fewer fans turned out. With Kenyon’s departure, that number’s guaranteed to get worse. I’ll be amazed if the Nets play in front of more than 5,000 people a night in another season or two (while the Brooklyn site undergoes the typical construction delays of any city’s mega-building projects).
It’s not my money, of course, but I’ll bet that the amount the team saves from not paying Kenyon is going to be offset by the incredible decline in ticket sales, parking and concessions revenues.
But that’s neither here nor there. What all of this is heading toward is my declaration that I am now done supporting the Nets, the Knicks, or any team. From here on in, I will continue to be an NBA mark, but I will no longer root for one team over any other. I will buy my NBA League Pass on DirecTV again and, whichever games are on that night, I’ll tune in if I’m in the mood. I’ll cheer for whoever interests me that night, and make sure to catch the players I love to watch (Tim Duncan, Kevin Garnett, Jason Williams, Peja Stojakovic (regular season only)). If a team strikes my fancy (like the Grizzlies last season), so be it. But no team gets more than a one-game commitment from me any longer.
That’s the new NBA.