A Message From Newark

In sports, players or coaches will often tip their hats to an electric home crowd, referring to them as the 10th or 13th man on the field. But how often does an otherwise jilted fanbase come together to send a collective message to ownership about the state of their franchise? And how often does that message get sent in games that don’t actually count in the standings and are played in a city that’s not even technically considered “home field?”

With an estimated crowd of about 16,000 fans at last night’s Nets-Knicks preseason matchup at the Prudential Center in Newark, and about 13,000 fans the week before when the Nets played the Celtics at “The Rock,” fans of the “New Jersey” Nets appeared to be sending a message to those who wish to move the franchise away from the Izod Center in East Rutherford to a brand-new arena in Brooklyn: Consider Newark. And maybe, just maybe, if Brooklyn falls through, there’s a way to find your way back here.

Yes, a large chunk of those tickets against the Celtics were basically giveaways – attempts by the Prudential Center and the pro-Newark crowd to inflate the final numbers. If you take those 5,000-6,000 freebies away, the Nets essentially drew against the Celtics what they had been bringing in at the Izod Center in preseasons past.

Last night was a different story. With the New York Knicks in town, the team arena experienced an unexpected walk-up crowd looking for tickets. Parts of the Prudential Center which had been curtained off last week, were unveiled to make additional room. All those freebie tickets were a much smaller percentage of the total crowd.

And inside the arena?

“I thought it was a very pro-Knick crowd, but as soon as the Nets started getting back into it, I realized that the majority of the fans were pro-Nets,” said Reginald Alberto, a Nets fan who attended the game last night as a recipient of a ticket giveaway from Nets Are Scorching. “The fans were constant with the thunder sticks all night.  Hearing these fans cheer and chant for the Nets all night long was very refreshing as a Nets fan who is used to fans who cant seem to find a voice … The arena had a big time feel to it even though it was just preseason. Even Joe Jackson came to the game. Joe Jackson would not have showed up at the Izod.”

Newark city officials certainly want the Nets at Prudential Center on a more permanent basis.  Newark Mayor Cory Booker is all but playing Johnny Fontane to Mikhail Prokhorov and Bruce Ratner’s Don Corleone. I’m just waiting for someone to yell “act like a man” as Booker continues to plead that Newark already has the arena and a built-in fanbase that would support a New Jersey-based team if someone would just move the Nets there. “I wouldn’t even have to act, just be myself.”

The next question is whether or not the message was received by ownership. The initial prognosis is … maybe. In a report in the Newark Star-Ledger, anonymous team officials said the team is considering setting up a temporary base in Newark as of next season, provided they can break their current lease at the Izod Center without paying a stiff $8 million fine.

As the report also notes, Ratner has always been resistant to keeping the window open in Newark because it could potentially undermine the move to Brooklyn. The proposed Atlantic Yards Development is already under siege from community groups who have filed lawsuit after lawsuit in an attempt to sink the project, or at the very least, delay it long enough for financing to fall through.

So credit must be given to the fanbase for showing up in the numbers they did last night. The Nets have still not given any kind of inclination that Newark or New Jersey in general is in their long-term plans. The game, while played against another local team whose fanbase could reach the Prudential Center easily by transit, was an inconsequential match-up against two teams predicted to be at the bottom of the Eastern Conference this season. By all accounts, the Nets should not have been able to draw 16,000 fans last night. They’ll be lucky to draw 16,000 to a regular season game this season that doesn’t feature LeBron James or Kobe Bryant as part of the visiting team.

There is still love in New Jersey for the Nets – especially in Newark – despite the past six year’s of drama that has seen ownership trade away its star players, dismantle its roster, switch architects to lessen costs, fight lawsuit after lawsuit, and seek help from a Russian oligarch with a checkered past. All in the name in Brooklyn.

As one Brooklyn-based Nets fan put it – there’s just something endearing about keeping the team in New Jersey.

“I would love to see the Nets keep the NJ name even if the thought of them playing 3.5 miles from my house is pretty cool,” said Ralph Nasar, who attended the Nets-Celtics game in Newark courtesy of a free ticket promotion. “It would lose that NJ feel. I was born in New Jersey and love rooting for New Jersey teams.”