Remebering the Meadowlands

Those of you out there who have followed my blogging all season, should know that I’ve always been a New Yorker rooting for the New Jersey Nets, and the general hassle of getting out to the Meadowlands has always limited my ability to attend live Nets games. Though I’ve been a diehard fan of this franchise since the 92-93 season, I actually didn’t get around to attending my first game in-person at the Meadowlands until the 2001-02 season – an amusing blowout of the New York Knicks where a bunch of Knicks fans sitting near my brother and I kept trying to convince us that the Nets were a flash in the pan that season. And you wonder why I’ve always thought the Knicks and their fanbase were bush-league.

So, with the Nets playing for the final time at the Meadowlands tonight, I can’t honestly speak about things from a sense-memory perspective like I could when the Mets closed down Shea Stadium in 2008. However, there are a number of “Meadowlands Moments” that helped cement my loyalty as a Nets and basketball fan. Rather than arbitrarily “rank” these, I’m going to list some of my personal favorite Meadowlands moments, games and plays that will stick with me for the rest of my fandom.

December 4, 1992 – I was thrilled when the YES team brought this game up during their own “Meadowlands Moments” series a few weeks ago, because this was one of those games that really helped develop my love for basketball, and in many ways it gave me my first “hero” in the NBA. A 108-103 OT victory against the San Antonio Spurs may be be best known as Kenny Anderson’s coming out party, scoring 31 points and 17 assists, but it was the play of Drazen Petrovic that left the biggest impression for me. Petro was an easy player for me to get behind as a young fan. While I always though of NBA players as athletic freaks who had to dunk to be successful, Petro was a guy who made a name for himself as an outside shooter. As a delusional kid, I thought if i shot at the school yard for enough hours, I could be the next Petro. During this game against the Spurs, where the Nets were down double-digits early, Petro sank five three-pointers and scored 34 points, but none were more important than the drive and layup he did with seconds left in regulation to send the game to OT. It’s funny what sticks with you when you’re younger, but I have this distinct memory of seeing the clock with about 4.8 seconds left and the Nets ready to inbounds the ball. When Petrovic started his move towards the rim, I thought there was no way he could drive to the rim, get a clean look and sink a shot in less than 5 seconds, and he did. In a weird way, that play helped give me a definitive perspective on the passage of time in an NBA game. What I would learn in this game and in later games, is a lot can happen in only 5 seconds. But Petrovic was the first player that made it possible for me.

April 23, 1993 – This was actually an incredibly frustrating game for me to watch, but talk about a definitive moment in NBA history. You might know about this guy who now plays for the Cavs name Shaquille O’Neal. Well, at one point he was perhaps the most destructive force in NBA history. And what was scary about it, was he was so young and raw, it amazed you to see this physical specimen and then think what’s going to happen when he puts it altogether (see: Shaq’s Laker years). Anyway, with the Nets hurting and limping their way into the playoffs, Shaq decided to treat the Meadowlands like the wasteland that it was/is and ripped the rim down during one play. He dunked the ball with such force and authority, that he couldn’t even get out of the way fast enough, the 24-second clock landing on the back of his neck. Through the magic of youtube, you can relive this moment anytime you want, but damn, seeing this live for the first time … talk about surreal.

May 2, 2002 – I’m going to jump ahead a bit here. Not to be fickle, but outside of the 97-98 season, there wasn’t a lot to celebrate in Nets-land in the late 90s, and probably my favorite game of that era occurred in Chicago (game 1, first round against the Bulls, a 96-93 OT loss against the defending champs). Nets fans who started following this team during the back-to-back Finals years may remember this one 120-109 double OT victory against the Indiana Pacers that advanced the Nets to the second round of the playoffs, and proceeded to give me about three or four strokes in the process. Remember, the Nets had a lot of doubters headed into the playoffs that season, because despite finishing with 52 wins and the best record in the East, they were a young, inexperienced team, with a captain in Jason Kidd who didn’t have much of a reputation for winning in the postseason. So the fact that they had a decisive fifth game against the Pacers was frustrating enough. Add in missed free throws by the Nets and a miraculous three by Reggie Miller at the end of regulation to send the game into OT, and I had already chewed off most of fingernails. By the time Miller drove and dunked the ball to tie the game at the end of the first OT, my last nerves had been spent. I fully expected the Nets to choke and lose this game, because that’s what the New Jersey Nets did up until that point in my fandom. When the Nets came out in the second OT and stomped the Pacers dead, it was a revelation. After being on the brink of looking like every other Nets team I ever pulled for, this group was going to be different.  It was the most anxious I’ve ever been while watching a basketball. I was in college, and had a girl who lived down the floor from me who was a huge Pacers fan, and she kept calling up my room to harass me. Yet, at the end, I was able to be jubilant. An emotion I never really associated with the Nets before.

April 17, 2004 – As I mentioned earlier, I’ve never had any love lost for the Knicks. Sadly, given that the beginning of my Nets fandom coincided with some of the Knicks best seasons in recent memory (including a first round victory against the Nets in 1994), I’ve never felt like I was able to grab bragging rights in the cross-river rivalry. This changed during the first round of the 2004 playoffs. While the Nets had been considerably beter than the Knicks for the past three seasons, the Knicks and their fanbase were still running their mouths about how their franchise was on the rise because Isiah Thomas was calling the shots and Stephon Marbury, a disaster as a Net, was the point guard. Remind me again how that worked out for the Knicks? All kidding aside, game one was all about the Nets establishing themselves as the big bullies on the playground and I loved every second of it. They held the Knicks to 38 percent shooting in their 107-83 victory over New York and a hard flagrant foul on Tim Thomas via Jason Collins had the Knicks forward calling out Kenyon Martin and his own teammates for a lack of toughness. I’ll always laugh at the post game talk of K-Mart being a “fugazi” – a fake tough guy. Either way, the Nets swept the Knicks away, but it was the game at the Meadowlands that established the Nets were indeed the Knicks’ daddies.

February 24, 2009 – I figured something a little more recent to bring us home. Remember what I said about what Drazen taught me could be accomplished in less than 5 seconds? Well, Devin Harris taught me what can be done in less than 2 seconds – meaning, apparently a player is capable of dribbling to around halfcourt, bobbling the ball and still heaving it while being defended for a game-winning miracle shot – perhaps the greatest shot to win a game I’ve ever seen, and by far the most unbelievable game-winning shot to ever take place in the Meadowlands. My enthusiasm for this moment is only slightly tempered by the fact that 2009 was not a winning season for the Nets, but to see a game won under these circumstances is pretty special. There are people I’ve talked to about this game and that shot who question its validity – there’s no way he legally got that shot off in time – but it counts in the record books, and at the end of the day, that’s what ultimately matters.