As you probably know, Tuesday’s summit meeting in New Jersey was not shown on television anywhere. That is amazing. So we happily relied on our old friend David Roth to get out to Newark and do some good old fashioned reporting. Journalism is not always easy. It’s not always fun. Sometimes you have to be one of the only people in the world to watch the New Jersey Nets play the Minnesota Timberwolves. David?
We take bad basketball teams into our hearts when we’re young. Or we take good ones, depending on how much of a tragic sense of life or stubbornness or whatever you’ve got working for/against you at the age of 11, which is when — at least from my experience — the NBA really becomes very important. Growing up where I grew up and how I grew up — in the streets and hard as hell, respectively — I did not have to become a New Jersey Nets fan. Just across the river, in Manhattan, was a good if not terribly lovable Knicks team, which you may remember: Patrick Ewing all drippy and virtuosic, Mark Jackson’s understated pudgy-playground-guy excellence and later Derek Harper’s Humpty Hump facial features. Looking back, the Knicks have some tragic-sense-of-life cred in their own right — the franchise has run up a 2522-2554 over its 65 seasons and won all of two titles, and things like Charles Smith’s epic one-man anti-layup drill in the 1993 playoffs and the ongoing retardo-plutocratic nightmare of the James Dolan Years are plenty bleak.
The most tragic thing of all about the Knicks, though, is also the funniest: the people covering and cheering for the Knicks think of them as mega-champs going through a generations-long dry spell. Which is New York, I guess. But I grew up in New Jersey, where we build towering and ornate ziggurat-y monuments to our failures — mansions of glory, suicide machines, you know — and make pilgrimages to revisit it and generally glory in overstated struggle the way New York glories in success. Also I’m kind of a masochist. So I chose the Nets.
Which means… well, you know what it means, if you’re a Timberwolves fan. It means season after season of alternately inert and ill-tempered sub-competence, and it means — when it happens, which it has for both our fan-bases and teams-of-choice — that when the team’s fortune turns, all those years of watching players dribble the ball off their feet can come to seem almost profound. A struggle that we had nothing to do with, besides continuing to watch and fund it, deepens and widens into a weird significance. When your entire state has earned — thanks to many things, but mostly to some of the worst governance in the nation, continued today by an oafish hamsteak of a governor and stretching back a century and more — national punchline status, this effect is doubled. And so the Nets came to mean a lot to my friends and to me during those years when the NBA means the most, and the organization rewarded (if that’s the word) our loyalties with a few fun basketball teams and a couple of doomed runs to the NBA Finals early last decade. And then the bottom fell out under a pair of sad and cynical new ownership groups, and it fell and it fell, and suddenly I’m stepping off a New Jersey Transit train in Newark (below) and it’s a spring night in 2011 and I am walking past the desolate bunkered commerce of Market Street and towards the Prudential Center, to watch a Nets team that is starting this guy and employing this one and drifting into the end of both a sad season and a just-passing-through stint in New Jersey’s greatest faded city. Your Timberwolves are in town and it’s not on television anywhere and the chatter, as I get off the train, is of the New Jersey Devils or other things. The train is full of commuters, not Nets fans, and they seem as content to head back to their homes in Jersey as the Nets seem eager to leave theirs.
And that’s the real sad subtext to this thing – it’s two lousy, limping teams playing out the string in a game that isn’t on television anywhere, sure, but also the home team can barely make eye contact with its fans. The Nets are moving to Brooklyn for the 2012-13 season — there are placards touting the move in the high concrete catacombs leading to the luxury “sideline suites” and the High Point Solutions VIP Lounge, but no mention of it during the game. There are, however, incessant entreaties to fans to renew their season tickets for next year. You can do it at the Bud Light Goal Bar. I know this because I was told as much, in a number of different ways and by a number of different people, probably a dozen times during the game.
“Nets fans,” Avery Johnson says during one jumbotron promo, “we kentinue to build twards arr ultimate goal.” A mug on his desk is full of highlighters. The ultimate goal as defined by Johnson is a team that does not have to put Mario Freaking West — who has an endearingly old-school name that’d look great on a NBA Hoops card and who plays tough defense but is also Mario West — in the starting lineup or rely on Travis Outlaw’s defense or a bunch of other obvious basketball-style problems. The broader ultimate goal as defined by Bruce Ratner, the cynical real estate nebbish who bought the Nets as the centerpiece of an ambitious neighborhood terraforming enterprise, and shared by the team’s current owner — a dodgy Russian plutocrat whom you might know from his popular DirecTV commercials and lap giraffe — is to move the Nets out of New Jersey, and to Brooklyn. Everyone knows this. On a wall facing McCarter Highway there is a painted mural advertising the Devils — who also play at the Prudential Center — and which reads “Jersey’s Team.” The wall immediately adjacent is, tellingly, blank.
The Nets’ slow-motion breakup with New Jersey is, it turns out, all loud blankness. The ponytailed emcee guy bellows product placements into a microphone incessantly — “It’s time for the Volvo LED Roulette contest!” — but never says the words “New Jersey.” Up close, the emcee has the shellshocky stare of the offstage performer — and his ponytail, it turns out, is actually a vertical, columnar bale of thin dreads held fast by two zip-ties. I don’t envy him his job, presiding over frantic and hollow-seeming and heavily sponsored dead-ball diversions for a crowd that knows exactly what it is being diverted from. In a certain sense, these are just like the BS that you get between basketball at any NBA game. When the most powerful t-shirt cannon I’ve ever seen blasts bundled XL t-shirts into the dark distance of The Rock’s upper tank, as dancers beam and vamp (one teeters around on stilts, underhanding t-shirts to knotted swarms of kids) and as tumblers in MetroPCS-branded shirts throw each other in the air, and as the emcee demands to know who else wants a t-shirt, it’s all scored to Usher, just like it is everywhere else. But it was different, and everyone knew as much.
With both teams playing poorly and doing their own parallel zombie shuffles towards the draft lottery, there was a deeper sense of doom to all this. My decades with the Nets have seen some lousy teams — Jack Haley started 26 games for this monster squad for instance/chrissakes — but this Nets team will be very close to the worst if, as is expected, Deron Williams is shut down for the season with an injured wrist later this week. The Wolves, of course, you know about. They started Wayne Ellington and Nikola Pekovic in this one. You know about that, too, and you know what that means.
The game? Fun enough, but obviously not beautiful basketball. The Timberwolves team I saw nearly beat the Knicks back in December is gone — worn down by injury, or by losing, or by in some cases simply not being as good as their opposing numbers. The Wolves of December were, if not exactly good, fun to watch. On Tuesday, they were much-diminished and much less lively. Poor Wayne Ellington and Jonny Flynn — great college players both, and Flynn someone I had pegged for a decent NBA future — looked hurried and overwhelmed and notably unlike NBA players in this one. Pekovic, who at least bullied (the eminently bully-able) Timofey Mozgov back in December, was exasperated and lost. Anthony Randolph’s 20-and-10 double-double looks terrific to those who didn’t see the game — that is, to people other than me and the certainly-not-accurate 13,461 people that the Nets claim took this one in from the seats. For those of us who saw it, though, it was ineffably and inarguably and so exasperatingly Randolph-ian. He was alternately pushed-around and simply adrift on defense, and is still so jittery and flub-prone — what should have been a go-ahead steal-and-dunk with 25 second remaining wound up as a baffling biff that ended with the ball jostling a laptop and toppling a water-bottle in the second row of press desks — that it’s almost poignant to watch him. He remains as good an argument for a serious, development-oriented minor league system as the NBA has to offer; everything is there, but it is also, all of it, absent. For much of the second half, the best non-Beas Wolves player was Anthony Tolliver.
And yet the Wolves nearly won this. The Nets, for their part, fielded a minor league team and let Deron Williams quarterback it, and he wound up assisting on 21 of the team’s 42 field goals and carried an 11-and-11 double-double into the half. With that bum wrist, and with humpbacked Stephen Graham and gangly Randolph-clone Brandan Wright and Sasha Vujacic — who revealed himself, in a promotional video, to sound exactly like what I imagine Jordan Farmar’s Borat imitation sounds like — catching his passes, Williams did all that. He drove and the entire Wolves team congealed around him, and he kicked out. He spotted seams — big ones, gussets — in the defense and threw lobs to Brook Lopez through them. And at the end of the game, with 1.7 seconds left, he drove on Luke Ridnour, stopped as Ridnour toppled, and elevated for a game-winning jumper. I imagine you all know how this goes and feels as well.
And with that, after that, the time I spent making bitter notes on the crassness of the game experience and the strangeness of the vault-ceilinged storage crypt under the stands (a mashed piece of cheesecake on a paper plate at a table; stacks of arena seats) and the windswept apocalyptic Newark-ness of everything around (a sign flapping on the fence outside a parking garage with a picture of a teenager and the legend “Happy Birthday in Heaven”) — all of that seemed, once the shot dropped and the game ended and the fans left, to be even smaller and less-significant than this game’s vanishingly small stakes had promised.
I did not expect that, I should say. I’ve written a lot — in this book and here and here and then again here — about my sadness in re: the Nets. But what I miss about the Nets — what they meant and what that meant, and the things they carried as the object for all my furious tweenage sports fan displacement and after — has nothing to do with this team or this experience. What I miss, now, is the missing itself — the caring-about was the last thing to go, but it’s gone.
So things emptied out after the game — cleaning people swept the unused and unheeded stat sheets from the mostly empty press section (two rows full, three rows empty, and one that was just me and another freelancer who watched the Mets game from his seat) and guys broke down press row’s monitors and electrical set-ups while bitching about traffic. The people cleaning the stands elected, for whatever reason, to dispose of discarded Thunderstix by stomping on them, and the sound was startlingly loud — little reports of gunfire in the emptying arena. It got lonely. A middle-aged guy came to the edge of press row and asked the cleaning people to give him the discarded scoresheets. “I usually get a set after every game,” he explained to the smiling, uncomprehending woman who cleaned my row, and who spoke to me (and I assume everyone else) in Spanish. He pleaded his case to one of the guys breaking down the monitors, and they laughed about something as if they knew each other. Finally I gave him my scoresheets and he took off up the stairs and out of the arena. Players in a men’s league game that would start at 9:45 were stretching on the floor. The guy who spoke to the scoresheet collector came to unplug my monitor and I asked him what the story was with the score-sheet guy. The guy shrugged and looked past me. “Don’t know him,” he said. “So, no story.” And then I stood up and I looked around and I got out of there.