On June 1, I found myself in sitting in the outfield bleachers at Yankee Stadium for a Saturday night Sox-Yankees tilt. I’m a Mets fan, but was ready to give in to the 27-ringed hydra for a while. Sitting with my soon-to-be-inlaws (Yankees fans, the lot of them) seemed like a good excuse to cheer for a winning baseball team for once. But then the game started, and the Yankees fans around us made good on every generalization about their ilk. The deluge of homophobic slurs that started in the first inning weren’t much of a surprise, but the third-inning heckles involving the Boston Marathon bombing did catch me off-guard. When you find yourself among the rotten, it’s hard to root for the home team.
I bring all of this up because as June proceeded, the Nets —- my beloved, one-time underdog representatives of Jersey -— finally completed the transformation that they had been teasing for the past 18 months or so. They became the Yankees: NBA Division.
Some of my nicest t-shirts are Nets shirts, so I’ve been wary of saying this next part out loud too often. It was easy to ignore while basketball games were being played, and won. But then the Nets got booted from the second season and the ticket reps kept calling with higher asking prices for next season and the Finals happened and we all saw what BASKETBALL really looks like. Then Kidd, then Pierce and Garnett, then AK47. All things I support -— because I’m a Nets fan. But that’s the thing I’ve been worrying about.
If I wasn’t a Nets fan, I think I’d hate the Nets. Yeesh, that didn’t feel right at all. Maybe I misspoke. Second try: If I wasn’t a Nets fan, I’d definitely hate the Nets.
Ah, twisted relief.
They’re awful, right? I’m not alone and I’m not a dummy. The blinders of fandom can only block so much. This team has become the Evil Empire, coordinating the destruction of planets from a snug control room inside the newly constructed Death Star at Flatbush and Atlantic. The smell they pump into the building? That’s the stench of money and sterilized marketing strategies and executive suite packages and profit margins and any buzzword that has traction and more money. Technically, they play basketball there, but that seems beside the point -— the point being to build brand awareness and market saturation.
Every basketball decision that was made this offseason seemed like a thinly veiled ticket-selling scheme, pieces of narrative that could be copy and pasted into any corporate sponsor presentation. But every decision has also given the team a higher ceiling (even, in my opinion, the hiring of Coach Kidd). So why can’t I just let this all go? Why can’t I ignore the process and focus on the result? Why can’t I enjoy the fact that my team has finally broke free of the fiscal shackles of New Jersey and the Secaucus Seven and started buying their way to the top, past small markets, past patient, advance-stat-driven organizations? Why can’t I embrace the darkness?
Probably because sports have never really worked out for me. I’ve never gotten to root for a winner, and I’ve never had to root for the bad guy (or gotten to root for the bad guy, as the case may be). I was born into blood, asleep in my crib while my dad was downstairs, muffling cheers as the ball went through Buckner’s legs and the Mets were being amazin’ in ’86. My first memory -— in life -— is meeting Mookie Wilson in a mall in Jersey, so I was branded a Mets fan as early as possible. But it was too late—I missed ’86, and then caught everything that’s happened since. Concurrently, I was getting dragged to seasons worth of Rutgers football games. One year they went 0-11. I was a kid and didn’t know there was another way. I didn’t know sports fandom could be anything other than defeat and agony.
But now, I’m staring deep into the eyes of an upcoming NBA season where the Nets have expectations, something that’s never really happened. (I don’t think those two Slam covers really compare to what’s going on now.) I should be all in, but just can’t shake these bad feelings about buying a $180 million train ticket to relevance. I was taught to hate the Yankees, and now I root for the team that thousands of kids will be taught to hate. And I kind of hate them too! I have my own version of Ed Norton’s 25th Hour diatribe, aimed at the Nets, that I won’t share here. But it’s real, and it’s spectacular. There are plenty of things to dislike about this team, chief of which is the fact that they’ve worked around every restriction that hinders every other team in the league and just purchased a contending team. I’ve never been sure what “the right way” to build a team looks like, but I don’t think it’s this.
I know I sound dumb and should be happy that my team is good, but I think I’m just nervous of Nets fans becoming the dude in the Mariano Rivera jersey back on June 1 who looked like Vanilla Ice and kept starting “Boston sucks!” chants and tried to get kicked out for smoking a cigarette and then did get kicked for just being an ass. That type of entitled fan can only be spawned from years of success, and that’s what the Nets are in position for right now.
I’ve even thought that maybe this is the time when I split from the team, or at least get my fandom downgraded from Obsessive to Casually Detached Observer. But again, I was born into this. Last week, I found myself flipping through stacks of old family pictures. Interspersed with all the photos of people who I love and really miss were my dad’s ticket stubs from games at Brendan Byrne Arena. It may be unhealthy, but these disparate pieces of family history look the same to me. The Nets are about as close to being in my DNA as possible.
At first, the parts of the Celtics trade I thought most about were that they kept Uncle Reggie and lost MarShon. These two dudes didn’t come to Brooklyn because the marketing engine’s gravity pulled then in, rather they just sort of ended up there—Reggie was a cheap big and MarShon a late draft pick. But now they’ve both been caught up in the machine, with Reggie becoming a marketable entity with merchandise of his own and MarShon becoming a casualty of the monster. MarShon was a very particular kind of Net: the young guy, drafted by the team, that fans talk themselves into because they don’t have too much else to talk about. Then he doesn’t get the playing time that he doesn’t deserve, but that fans clamor for anyway. (He’s also a great canvas to throw nicknames at. The two that I came up with, that no one liked except me, were “Secret Sauce” and “Baby Face Killer.” Boston, these are yours now. Please foster them warmly.) Then there’s Reggie, the trust fund art school dropout’s Kevin Garnett.
I guess the easiest (if crass) way to say it is that these two guys are much more New Jersey Nets than Brooklyn Nets, so I really like them an awful lot. And that may be what’s at the crux of this whole thing: I’m from New Jersey, so I’m most comfortable situated adjacent to the thing everyone talks about, while trying to convince everyone that the thing I’m part of is just as great. I’d rather not tie up my identity with the team like this, but it just kinda happened. Now that the Nets are in the spotlight, though, there’s not much need to convince people they matter. The role Nets fans have been playing for the past 35 years has been made redundant. Those of us who remain need to find our footing in this shifting landscape.
Or I guess I can stop overthinking it and just keep rooting for the team. That’ll work too. When I said up top that sports have never really worked out for me, it wasn’t 100 percent accurate. To be honest, I forgot about this when I started writing this, but I was a Yankees fan for a few years: starting in 1996, when they won the World Series. Again, I had really forgot about this. My uncle had a professional relationship with Joe Torre for a few years leading up to the Yankees stint. When Torre’s St. Louis Cardinals would visit Queens or Philadelphia, we would get tickets and shake Mr. Torre’s hand and watch bad baseball from up close. It was so great.
Then Torre got the Yankees job. And that was different. I now had a personal interest in the Yankees. The New York Yankees. We still got tickets to games, but this was another planet. My grandmother would still pack us the same salami sandwiches for these games that she’d give us to bring to Rutgers games, but now we were watching a team win. And not just a team -— gulp — our team. I had packed it away for many years, but I still have the memory of sitting in a tent at Cub Scout camp with my dad, holding a radio that we smuggled in, listening as Mark Lemke popped out to Charlie Hayes. That was the first time the team I rooted for won the title. I didn’t choose the Yankees back then. But I got them. That’s quite a gift.
Now, with the Nets, I didn’t choose the Yankees either. But that’s what I got. And despite all my tepid, dumb thoughts on “building a team the right way” or “earning wins,” that’s quite a gift. The team I’ve rooted for my entire life is finally entering the season with championship expectations. They got here by lucking in to a manically competitive owner with a lot of money. But at least they’re here. Is this team easy to hate? Yeah, very much so. But they’re still my team. Ed O’Bannon is long gone, but it still says Nets in the standings (even if it doesn’t on the jerseys).
And anyway, at my core, I’m just that Mets kid on YouTube. I’m pretty sure we all are. Don’t we just want to see our team win, no matter who that team is?