Goodbye, New Jersey

When I was in sixth grade, I dressed up as Jason Kidd for Halloween. It was a simple costume: a home #5 jersey over a white undershirt, a pair of navy blue Nike shorts, a single sweatband up to my left elbow, and, of course, a face-painted brown goatee. I’d be surprised if any of the old ladies’ homes I hit up that year had any idea who I was, or why I wasn’t wearing a Scream mask and a black robe like the rest of the boys my age. Dressing up as Kidd was a no-brainer for me; there was nobody else in the world who I wanted to be, and not just be like. He was my hero.

I used to dribble an old worn-out Spalding in the cement driveway, taking shots on the basketball hoop my dad got us for Christmas. I’d commentate my own motions in my brain: “Kidd passes to the left, Kidd gets the ball back, five, four, Kidd takes a step, Kidd’s at the three, three, two, Kidd shoots, one, Kidd scores! Jason Kidd at the buzzer!” I’m sure most hardcore NBA fans had an idol at some point. They may not have had Jason Kidd posters line their room, pages full of Jason Kidd basketball cards, or hand drawn pictures of Jason Kidd putting a ball between his legs, but they had something. Something that made basketball special.

It’s taken me time to grow out of athlete worship, even though I’m almost at the point where the superstars and I share the same age. On the outside, I feel like I know and understand basketball as much as any serious fan does, but on the inside, I’m still a little kid and completely guilty of getting to games early for the sole reason of collecting autographs and high fives. Does it make it more or less acceptable that I know the ridiculousness of this? It doesn’t change the fact that every time I stand by the players tunnel holding a mini-basketball and a Sharpie I wonder when I will finally grow out of it.

My brother, Kevin, has been a Toronto Raptors fan since he was four years old, walking into his Pre-K class wearing a Vince Carter T-shirt. Kevin’s love for Vince was my love for Kidd tenfold. He used to reenact his infamous slam dunk contest on the plastic rim in our bedroom, putting the rubber ball behind his back, his feet coming down hard on the carpet, loud enough to scare my parents as they watched TV in the living room underneath us. I remember the day I told him his favorite player had been traded to my favorite team. I remember the look of shock on his face, and I remember that he made me prove it to him by printing off the Yahoo! Sports article and handing it to him. I remember that my first Nets game was two days later at the Air Canada Centre and my eleven-year-old brother couldn’t shake the fact that his hero had up and left him in the blink of an eye. I remember not knowing whether or not to feel excitement or sympathy.

For a those first few months of the Carter Era, it was impossible for me to watch the Nets without feeling like I was rubbing it in for getting Vince. How could it not? It wasn’t fair that our family Nets-Raptors rivalry had turned heated, or that I got to have my hero and now his. Kevin and I both loved basketball, it was something that we always had — sitting in our room talking about stats and games, highlight reel dunks and buzzer beaters. But now, things were different. It was as if I had stolen his guy from him directly. As if it were my fault for being a Nets fan.

I distinctly remember sitting on my uncle’s couch at Thanksgiving in 2006, when Kevin predicted that the Raptors would win the Atlantic Division. Everyone in the room called him a homer and laughed at him, like his statement was the most ridiculous thing they’d heard. Of course, Toronto would win that division, only to have a first-round exit from a Richard Jefferson buzzer beating layup. That playoff series was an event in our house, because for the first time, a Raptor or Net win actually meant something important. We had a stake in what was happening.

Kevin and I have a relationship built from our love of sports; a shared interest in Buffalo Bills football versus a division rivalry in basketball. And, tonight, when the Nets take on the 76ers for their final game in New Jersey, I won’t only be thinking about what it was like to watch Jason Kidd throw alley-oops to Kenyon Martin, or see Lawrence Frank win his first thirteen games, or remember back to when I was laughed out of science class in eighth grade because the Nets lost a 4-2 NBA Finals to the Spurs, I’ll remember sitting at the Air Canada Centre during winter break after my freshmen year of college with only my brother by my side.

Maybe this is why part of me is sad to see Nets basketball disappear from New Jersey. I was born in Rochester, New York and I go to college near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, so my ties to East Rutherford or Newark are non-existent. For me, rooting for the Nets has nothing to do with New Jersey except for the fact that when I was a kid, growing up and developing into a superfan, the team was on YES, the only other sports channel we got besides ESPN. Soon, the New Jersey Nets team that I loved will be gone. And the pictures I drew, the cards I collected, the stories and memories I will always remember will be, in a way, obsolete. In twenty years, when I talk about what it was like to watch Jason Kidd-Kenyon Martin alley-oops, my kids will say, “Oh, the Brooklyn Nets?” They will hardly realize that this team I once rooted for even existed. They’ll know it as nothing more than the citation on Wikipedia.

We all know that the New Jersey era hasn’t been the most successful. The fans are few and far between, and even worse, unsupportive. And while I am glad to see my favorite basketball team take a major step up, I am going to miss rooting for the New Jersey Nets. It’s going to be weird to call them anything else. This team is leaving and starting from scratch, and as Nets fans, so are we. We are moving forward, and the purpose is to completely forget the past. That’s why we are honoring it tonight, for one last time.

But maybe I don’t want to forget about the past. Maybe I want to remember New Jersey, as much of a punchline as it has become over the years. Because I know that I wouldn’t be the basketball fan I am now if I didn’t turn on YES one evening, and watched in awe as K-Mart threw down a two-handed slam. Us Nets fans have been through it all, historic losing seasons, heartbreaking finals losses, marquee free agents leaving us at the altar for sexier brides and thirty-five straight years in a half-empty arena.

And yet, for whatever reason, I am going to miss it.