Chances are you didn’t miss it, but if you did: the Brooklyn Nets retired Jason Kidd’s #5 New Jersey Nets jersey in a preseason ceremony Thursday night, replete with extravagance. There was a light show. There were fireworks. There were former Nets (Buck Williams, Kerry Kittles) and current suits (Bruce Ratner, Brett Yormark, Dmitry Razumov). There were podium introductions by Chris Carrino, the phenomenal Nets radio announcer, and Rod Thorn, the GM that orchestrated Jason Kidd’s very arrival with the Nets. Kenyon, Vince Carter, Richard Jefferson, and Dirk Nowitzki all recorded video tributes for the jumbotron. A bunch of Kidd’s former coaches and teammates were on hand to honor him as he honored them: Kidd said as his number was raised, his teammates went up with him.
Indeed, the retirement had a special flavor. Kidd is the team’s greatest NBA player, its current head coach, and now part owner. He’s as much a face of the Nets organization as the Nets have ever had, even considering his ignominious departure from the team after requesting a trade in 2008. Unless he has a supreme fall from grace, he stands to be the face of the Brooklyn Nets in this generation, as they make the transition from caricature to contender.
But that’s also what made the whole spectacle strange.
It’s fun to look back and think the Nets were the big thing in the early 2000s with superstar Jason Kidd at the helm, that they stole the spotlight for good from the dreaded cross-state rival New York Knicks in those times, that nobody gave a flying Sprewell about the Knicks as the Nets were busy plowing through the Eastern Conference. The ceremony provided a hotbed for that kind of imagined nostalgia.
But that’s just not the way it was. The Knicks outsold the Nets in ticket sales every season in New Jersey from 1986, even during the ugliest Knicks Marbury years and the finest Kidd-led Nets seasons. I bought NBA playoffs tickets to every Nets home game against the Cleveland Cavaliers the morning of the game for $10. They were the Showtime that no one showed up for. Kidd even joked about it in his pregame presser, noting “We had some big crowds in Jersey. Opening night 4,000, 5,000, we were rocking.”
Kidd stands as the Nets’ final tribute and connection to their days in New Jersey, the one mark not ugly enough to get scrubbed off the team’s shiny new shield. But he’s also been involved with the franchise throughout this weird transition from nowhere New Jersey to flashy brownstone Brooklyn. He’s a reminder of a time the team’s desperately tried to forget. Not the two NBA Finals runs, mind you, but the entire 35-year failed experiment that was professional basketball in New Jersey.
Here’s one example. In two Nets home preseason games — Thursday night against the Miami Heat, and Saturday night against the Detroit Pistons — the second quarter was sponsored by Bay Ridge Honda. Think about that for just one second. A quarter of a preseason game was sponsored. The first game wasn’t even on television!
That’s not a knock on the Nets, mind you. They’ve got that cultural clout now. But in New Jersey? The team had to sell reversible jerseys with the opponents on the other side just to get fans to come to the arena. This isn’t Jason Kidd’s Nets anymore, not East Rutherford’s Swamp Dragons. This is The Brooklyn Nets Presented By SW24 Security, the billion-dollar juggernaut with unstoppable brand identity. They’ve got The Big Ticket and (rightfully) The Big Ticket Prices. They’ve accomplished the dream that was but a gleam in Bruce Ratner’s eye in 2003. They’ve made it.
Even Kidd knows that the New Jersey era was something that the Nets want to forget, even as they remember its biggest hero. And that was Thursday night’s ultimate irony: Kidd’s lavish retirement ceremony, and the circumstances that allow it, are anathema to everything the Nets represented before, during, and after Kidd’s tenure in New Jersey. The franchise retiring Kidd’s jersey isn’t the one he played with. Not exactly.