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New Yorkers {heart} Winners, but the Nets?

The N.J. team has played second fiddle to the Knicks. Until now.

June 09, 2002|JOSH GETLIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK -- Doormats. Whipping boys. Chumps.

Ever since they joined the NBA, the New Jersey Nets have played second fiddle to the New York Knicks, the dominant team in the country's largest media market. They have suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous New Yorkers, who ridiculed them as losers.

Until now.

As the championship series between the Nets and the Los Angeles Lakers shifts tonight to the Meadowlands, in a drafty arena built on a swamp in East Rutherford, the Big Apple's once-haughty fans are facing the unthinkable: New Jersey actually has a decent basketball team.

"Give them credit; they've come a long way," sniffed Lawrence "Larry Legend" D'Earcy, lacing up his shoes for a game at Greenwich Village's West 4th Street court, an asphalt temple where pickup players from across the nation come to live, breathe and bleed basketball.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday June 17, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
Jayson Williams--A story about the New Jersey Nets in last Monday's A section incorrectly stated that former NBA star Jayson Williams is charged with fatally shooting his bodyguard. He is charged with shooting a limousine driver.

"It's just hard for me as a New Yorker to admit this," D'Earcy added, "because the Nets were so lousy for so long. This year, the tables turned on us like crazy."

To understand the discomfort many here feel, imagine how Los Angeles would react if the Lakers imploded and the Los Angeles Clippers, whose very name is synonymous with failure, suddenly vaulted into the NBA finals. At least L.A. fans would be more than vaguely aware of the Clippers, who play in the same downtown arena as the Lakers.

It's a different world here. Although the Nets' Continental Airlines Arena is only 10 miles from Madison Square Garden, where the Knicks have played since 1968, it might as well be 1,000 miles distant, given the vast gulf separating the two teams.

Many Knicks fans, to put it mildly, would rather watch Boston Celtics highlight films than travel to games in New Jersey. Their team has a long history of winning and a cocky courtside manner, even though its last NBA title came nearly 29 years ago.

The Nets, by contrast, have never snared an NBA championship and have only rarely had winning seasons. And the fact that the team is down 2-0 against the Lakers isn't helping New Yorkers find this enthusiasm.

"I wouldn't go to the Meadowlands; it's much too hard to get out there and it feels very far away," said author David Halberstam, who has written about the NBA. "The Nets are a good team, but where they play has been the black hole of basketball for so long. They've been stigmatized for us."

Other New Yorkers put it more bluntly.

"The whole state of New Jersey is a joke," scoffed Don Passinkoff, a retired high school English teacher who still plays pickup games with guys a third his age. "But who knew their team would catch fire?"

Certainly not the Nets. As recently as last year, the desultory, snake-bitten outfit won 31 games and lost 51. They have been plagued by poor business decisions, boneheaded trades, a rash of crippling injuries and a streak of bad luck reaching from Paterson to Pennsauken.

Few enjoyed playing in East Rutherford. An unhappy Net once stenciled "Trade Me" on his sneakers before every game. To be sure, some NBA stars, including Julius Erving, Rick Barry and Jayson Williams, were once part of the organization. (But even some of that shine seemed to wear off Friday when Williams pleaded not guilty in a New Jersey courtroom to charges that he fatally shot his bodyguard.)

Most telling, the team never felt that the New Jersey community fully supported it. Not like New York loves the Knicks.

"The Nets arena was like one of those stupid sound studios and you could hear everything because it was so empty," wrote former all-star center Williams in his 2000 memoir, "Loose Balls: Easy Money."

"Once some joker got hold of the loudspeaker system somehow and said, 'Will the lady who lost five children please claim them. They're beating the Nets 70 to 65.' "

Times have changed. This weekend, the Nets will play the Lakers before a sold-out house. Local sports shops are doing a brisk business in Nets jerseys, and talk radio is boiling over with brash predictions of a home team upset.

In true New Jersey style, local newspaper columnists are bristling with indignation over how the world sees them. "Laugh, L.A.--Nets Don't Mind," read the headline over a recent Newark Star-Ledger column from Mike Vaccaro.

From Los Angeles, Vaccaro wrote: "Out here, we are viewed with amusement, as just another set of droll characters helping to break up the monotony of another perfect 78-degree day. We all wear headbands like Springsteen, circa 1984. We awls tawk like Carmela Soprano, circa 2001."

As Nets fan Ken Daube picked up tickets last week at the Meadowlands sports arena for Sunday night's game, he said the sold-out crowd was something new for the team. Typically, fans have been able to buy prime seats minutes before a game, often for less than face value. Crowds of 5,000 to 7,000 have been common throughout the team's lackluster years, he said.

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