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Requiem for the Nets

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New Jerseyans are in the unique position of both being incredibly arrogant, and having severe self-esteem issues. We don't like ourselves, but that doesn't mean that we particularly care for anyone else either. Envy, maybe. I've never understood the need to alternately laud or bemoan the state (or its public universities). It fares well enough if your chosen criteria are metrics like state infant mortality or literacy rates. On the other hand, no one likes paying out their nose in property taxes, on top of the already exorbitant cost of living. This inevitably leads to the most definitive of suburban N.J. sentiments: detached indifference.

If there's one thing about the Garden State that I care for though, it's the sports teams. We may be situated in the shadow of New York City, and owe it our very presence, but I'll be damned if I have to follow its lamer Knicks and Rangers. The Giants moved to East Rutherford in the late seventies, and the Jets followed them to Florham Park last year. The Nets and Devils similarly arrived in that late seventies, early eighties period. George Steinbrenner always idly threatened to move his Yankees to the Meadowlands, but never quite made due on that empty threat. Rutgers was here all along, standing by the banks of the Raritan River since 1766, with brief intermittent pauses in the meantime. They even saw to it to invent the game of football a few years after their centennial.

New Jersey sports fans need to stick together. Rutgers University portends to represent the entire state, including the Philadelphia-oriented South Jersey. Its football program also has designs on appealing to the looming NYC market to the North. Nevertheless, if you're from Northern or Central Jersey, were born at some point in the past thirty years, and follow professional hockey and basketball, you just have to throw your lot in with the Devils and Nets. After all, cheering for the Rangers and Knicks is punishment enough in itself. Both franchises take on the characteristics (vapid, spoiled, and entitled) of their owner, the miserable James Dolan; his stature roughly equivalent that of to Paris Hilton, minus the looks. Absentee corporate accounts are a license to print money, so their excesses continue unabated. Likewise, New Jersey sports fans are only cheating themselves if they follow college football, and don't catch a game at some point in Piscataway. (There's always the choice of Seton Hall in basketball, if you're in thrall of the world's greatest rivalry.)

It's a faint memory now, but when the Devils first arrived back in the early eighties, the franchise was in tatters. Wayne Gretzky called them a "Mickey Mouse" organization. Five straight losing seasons followed, but the impetus for the turnaround was appointing one Lou Lamoriello as President and General Manager. Through the next few years, it was a slow but steady rise to the top. Ranger fans remember where they were during the 1994 Conference Finals, but so do Devil fans. Matteau's game seven goal was a punch in the gut, from which I thought that I would never recover. Of course, it turned out to be the impetus that the Devils needed to subsequently win three Stanley Cups, become a model franchise, and watch their bitter rivals wallow in a decade of misery. That eased the pain to an extent.

"Aha", you may say. The Devils haven't won a championship in six years. I have two easy responses to that line. The very thought that expectations are up to a point where not winning the cup is a disappointment is enviable. As Paul DePodesta has said, the most dependable way to build a winner is through a reliable process. Sporting seasons aren't long enough to register a meaningful enough sample size, so flukey events can and do happen. Unfortunately, the natural inclination is to panic and do something knee-jerk in response.

However, increasing your odds over the long haul creates more and more opportunities for success. Eventually, given time, the odds will once again fall in your favor. That's why the Devils are great, and it's the model (of success, physical toughness, and mental tenacity) that I want Rutgers athletics to emulate going forward. The team goes first, not individual glory. By all accounts, it represents Coach Schiano's vision for the football team as well.

Now, all the comparisons aren't necessarily as flattering. The Devils franchise has long had a reputation for being impersonable, and aloof to the concerns of its customers. It's not much of a stretch to levy similar complaints towards the Rutgers athletic department over the past decade. Like Rutgers, the Devils too had to overcome many hurdles over the past few years in getting a major facilities upgrade project off the ground. Grading on a curve, both teams are far improved from their humble beginnings, but undeniably have many remaining tasks to accomplish.

Those problems improved dramatically with the Devils once Jeffrey Vanderbeek, formerly a season ticket holder, purchased the team in 2004. They moved into a terrific new arena, the franchise now comes off as far more sensitive to fan concerns (for instance, cutting ticket prices when the economy tanked last year), and even old Lou actually seems to be willing to spend money these days (well, before the economy crashed anyway). Down in Piscataway, it was the former athletic director Robert Mulcahy who was tasked with doing the heavy lifting, but now his replacement Tim Pernetti is responsible for making sure that the athletic department takes the next step in their long progression. We don't know at this point how he'll ultimately fare on the fundraising front, but Pernetti has done a wonderful job in a short time frame of improving the department's public image, and making it appear more accessible to fans.

The cancer that continues to fester in the Izod Center tempers all of this optimism. The former Brendan Byrne/Continental Airlines Arena is, as New Jersey fans are quick to point out, a fine venue for concerts and other non-sports activities. It's a terrible place to watch hockey or basketball, far from mass transit, with antiquated facilities, and seats far removed from the action. All the new lighting and locker room amenities that Forest City Ratner trucks in can't change those incontrovertible facts. The NJSEA somehow still owes nearly $700 million on the facility nearly three decades after it was built, which is why Izod continues to remain open despite being effectively replaced by The Rock as the premiere North Jersey event venue.

Snake bitten from the start, the Nets franchise hasn't had much in the way of breaks over the years. Unlike the Devils, they don't give you many reasons at the moment to actively support them. In fact, their actions should rightly lead any just observer to hope for their continued failure. As a (long suffering, and is there any other way to describe us) Nets fan, I'll do my best to explain how, if possible, to best separate my fondness for the team itself, and agony and disgust directed towards its management, at whose shoulders responsibility falls for allowing the team to fall into such dire straits.

After nearly a decade of futility during the nineties, things started looking up earlier this decade once Rod Thorn came in from the NBA's central offices, and proceeded to trade for Jason Kidd and draft Richard Jefferson. Things went swimmingly until 2004, when during a lull in negotiations for a new arena in Newark, real estate developer Bruce Ratner purchased the team. He had zero interest in the Nets themselves, but saw them as ideal tenants for a new facility built at the Atlantic Yards site in Brooklyn.

Wanting to minimize his losses on the team, the Nets were quickly forced to sell off Kenyon Martin to the Denver Nuggets. Facing an immediate fan revolt, Ratner briefly relented and allowed Thorn to replace Martin with Vince Carter, at a fire sale discount. Immediately dismantling the team wouldn't work, but Ratner proceeded to slowly bleed it dry; emptying arena with the twin disappointments of a worsening team on the court, and a promise to relocate the team in the future. That's what ultimately leads to decisions like trading your second best player for a cheaper, Charmin-soft project that lied about his age, and only looks effective when matched up against a chair in workouts. But hey, at least Chairman Yi will bring in a slice of that lucrative Chinese market. With Yao's knees sputtering, who else will they watch?

Forest City's plans were slowed by legal challenges to the blatant eminent domain abuse occurring in Brooklyn, which gave this decade's credit bubble ample time to burst, their business model only viable as a relic of that foregone insanity. Without the benefits of 25:1 leverage, rampant speculation, and unregulated collateralized debt obligations, it's far harder to build a superfluous arena that no one really wants or had asked for. This development may have doomed the franchise's short term hopes, but may offer a glimmer of long term hope for staying in New Jersey and recommitting to competitive basketball.

The franchise announced earlier this week a sale to Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov. Irony of ironies being that Prokhorov first made his fortune looting formerly-public assets obtained at cut-rate prices following the breakup of the Soviet Union, and now aims to be the central player in our own American variant of crony capitalism. The proposed Barclays Center only made possible with millions in state subsidies, despite projecting to be a net loss overall for taxpayers. Clouds now hang overhead, and the optimism from Develop Don't Destroy Brooklyn's Daniel Goldstein is little comfort at the moment.

This deal does basically nothing to help Ratner with the arena financing or the financing for the rest of the project. The $200 million reportedly coming from Prokhorov presumably goes, mostly, to buy out the Nets owners (not sure if that includes Ratner in full or in part) who wanted out from the team. It doesn’t appear to be going toward the project or the arena construction. Even if it is in part or in full, it is a long way from the total financing Ratner needs.

Almost as distressing in all of this is the notion that New Jersey is a poor fit for professional basketball. Bupkis. If your favorite franchise, in any sport, suffered through decades of mismanagement, their ticket sales wouldn't be through the roof either. Opening the Prudential Center proves that logistics and improving the fan experience plays a significant role in their corresponding support. The past half decade of Rutgers football shows that once-empty seats don't necessarily indicate that there wouldn't be a market for a team playing well, or even at an average level.

No; Ratner has actively tried to drive away fans, dismantling the roster straight out of the Major League script, and the press has largely given him a free pass on the matter. It's not the fans who are apathetic (they're disgusted). Rather, the complacent media uses this bit of circular logic to care less and less. Why exactly should we be excited by (as one typical media commen puts it) a "Russian Mark Cuban", when he still plans to, you know, steal our team? One recent bright spot has been Steve Politi of the Newark Star-Ledger, finally giving voice to the sentiments of despondent New Jersey Nets fans who loathe Ratner, and want nothing to do with a franchise in Brooklyn. Good lord; even George Zoffinger, the Bob Mulcahy assassin-cum-high priest of local political corruption and superfluous real estate development manages to call this mess for the charade and fraud that it truly is.

Shame on Bruce Ratner, and doubly so to NBA Commissioner David Stern. Stern's actions in faciliating this hijacking are especially saddening, given his status as a Rutgers College alumnus. There remains the faint hope that legal wranglings will give professional basketball in New Jersey a reprieve, but I'm not getting my hopes up at this point. As a Nets fan for nearly two decades, one quickly learns that oblivion and helplessness are all that you can realistically expect. I sat through enough bad basketball to last a lifetime. I wouldn't trade it for one second with the Brooklyn Nets, regardless of how many rubles lure in a LeBron James next summer.

The last few years have withered my once-strong interest in the NBA. If there's a positive to be had in all of this final slap in the face, it's that I won't have any qualms at all about cutting the chord entirely once the wheels are fully set in motion here. I won't be stepping foot in Izod any time soon, deliberately driven away by this undercurrent of madness and greed. With any luck, these grave sins will be rewarded with a sea of empty seats and luxury apartments in Brooklyn, crumbling under a towering spiral of debt. Mr. Stern, you're about to lose this New Jersey fan for life.