Hi. David Roth, here. I started writing something last night about going to the Nets opener, and then just kind of kept writing it and writing it until I realized that it was way too long. Bill Simmons long. Gregg Easterbrook long, almost. So I stopped. Then I looked at it this morning, still liked it, updated the tenses, and am posting it, with a technical assist from our GC. Those of you who have operated the internet before know that where the link says “click to continue,” you can click, to continue. Enjoy. There’s a lot of it:
Of late, my body has become more persnickety about redressing grievances. Most notably, if I stay up late drinking, I’m now rewarded with an early, unrequested and fully non-negotiable wake-up call. This is my body’s way of protecting my liver — via unstinting negative reinforcement and sleep deprivation, meaning my body has more in common with Donald Rumsfeld than I care to think. I understand it, even if I don’t always appreciate it, but it makes me feel old. Yesterday night, though, I found something that makes me feel older and more ridiculous than waking up at 8:45am on a Sunday in a light dew of whiskeysweat, four or so hours after falling asleep. I attended my first Nets game at the Izod Center.
This was far from my first Nets game. When I first started going to games, the Nets home court was named after generally undistinguished ex-Jersey governor Brendan Byrne and was home to some of the most undeniably undistinguished NBA teams in my lifetime. If you don’t know about an offense that runs through a 51-year old Purvis Short or a half-asleep Chris Morris, you don’t want me to tell you. But I know about it. So that was the Byrne.
Then, in the early Kidd Administration, the name was changed to Continental Airlines Arena. It never really caught on — “The Byrne” sounded cooler, although not as cool as Bob Torricelli Court at James Florio Arena would have — but it lasted awhile. The Devils, the Nets former roomies at the Byrne, are now out of the arena and into their modern new arena in Newark; their conference championship and Stanley Cup banners have been replaced in the rafters by a solitary banner reading “Bruce Springsteen: 35 Concerts.” The Nets, for their part, remain in an extended holding pattern while waiting to see if owner Bruce Ratner’s fanciful overhaul of South Brooklyn (and planned construction of a new Nets arena there) works out. During this interim, a new corporate sponsor has come on-board: still-extant ur-prep brand Izod, which apparently does not appreciate it when people mention alligators in relation with their now non-reptile-aligned brand. But when I think of Izod, I think of alligators. So I will call the Nets home court The Alligator. Actually, not really. I’ll call it The Byrne.
It looks the same, honestly: has the same woven-plastic seats and piped-in crowd noise and wild herds of schoolkids running in circles around the top of the arena. Superdunk — a steroidal gnat the color of “blue raspberry” food product who was the team’s original mascot — was long ago replaced by Sly the Fox, whom I think is actually a wolf and who this year introduced sidekick Mini-Sly. Mini-Sly was either a midget or a child in a furry suit, and wielded a t-shirt gun as if he had never before held one in his paws. But for his new arrival, though, this was much like any other Nets opener in recent years.
If it lacked the bummer-city personnel I witnessed jogging around the floor a couple of years ago — yelling encouragement to a dazed Ron Mercer after he dribbled the ball off his foot was a low point in my life as a fan — it didn’t lack the myriad goofinesses that I associated with a Nets game. There were hordes of drunks in leather jackets. There were a great many varsity jackets (Philip Roth’s alma mater of Weequahic High School in Newark was represented). Orthodox Jews in kipot. Fans of the opposing team. Kids in jerseys worn over sweatshirts; meatball heroes in jerseys worn over only gym-raised beef, sunglasses perched atop their heads. At an indoor basketball game. At night.
Oddball celebrities floated through the space, as smallish and puffy as they inevitably look in person. The ones I saw were seemingly either waiting for their helicopter rides home (wow, Donald Trump! Looks like an orange Muppet!) or meandering because they’ve been punched so many times (okay, I guess this one only applies to Evander Holyfield, resplendent and dazed at courtside in an orange suit). Or they’re Jay-Z and Chris Rock and do seem to be kind of earnestly watching the game, if also sending off tremendous amounts of refracted-diamond-glare when the light hits them wrong/right. Mr. Freddy Jackson graced us with his well-groomed presence as a halftime entertainer, and drew a warm ovation from a crowd that had evidently never witnessed the majesty of Newark’s Flip City Tumblers in their prime.
The arena — the Byrne, the Izod, whatever — looked the same. The difference that was most notable was the replacement of screens formerly showing out-of-town scores with new screens that displayed, in full color, the names and logos of a host of new sponsors. Among these was House of Dereon, the clothing label run by that one lady from SWV who’s dating Jay-Z.
It was a somewhat more corporate experience than I’d had at Nets games in the past, but the rate at which non-basketball sponsors have crowded out all but the most immediate basketball experience — the one on the floor, as riveting as ever — has been slow enough that I barely notice. I suppose that’s the idea: that I leave the stadium wanting to buy a Canon copier while in some sort of Beyonce-designed sheath, and then lug that copier behind me while I get a Snapple, a pack of JuicyFruit and, what the fuck, maybe a shirt that definitively does not have an alligator on it “ and all because I enjoy NBA basketball.
Considering that I started going to games when the Nets cheerleaders were called The Campbell’s Soup Girls and the arena’s jumbotron as often as not displayed an image of an anthropomorphized Nets logo doing a hypnotically simple side-to-side dance — and that I knew even then that those were also corny — it might just be that I am older and sentimental about something not worthy of my sentiment. But I was afraid to look away from the court for much of the game, for fear of seeing another space I recognized from my youth buried beneath the bombarding nothing of the cultural present. And anyway, since this was a great basketball game, it was probably fine that I seldom took my eyes off the proceedings.
The Nets have been picked anywhere from fourth to tenth in expert prognostications on likely orders of finish in the Eastern Conference, and were facing a Bulls team most people have in the top three. For most of the first half, though, the Nets dominated the game. During one frenetic stretch at the end of the first half, the B-to-B-Minus team of Darrell Armstrong, Josh Boone, Antoine Wright, Boki Nachbar and Vince Carter forced the Bulls into something like five straight turnovers in large part because of the only first-half full-court press I have seen in, I think, my entire life as a Nets fan. Armstrong, probably the least-heralded of the Nets offseason acquisitions (he was signed late in training camp after being waived by the Pacers) is a pisser, and unlike anyone the Nets have had in my time going to games.
One of the team’s most enthusiastic cheerleaders when not in the game — Smokey Sean Williams, who barely sat down, was the other — Armstrong was a blur when in it, playing pesky defense and helping his unit to a big run against a much more talented Bulls five. Even Jamaal Magloire, whom I’ve most often seen praised for how hard he fouls people, acquitted himself well in the first half. The Bulls, for the most part, looked overwhelmed, shot poorly and went into halftime down 15. Their coach, Scott Skiles, seemed to be getting in character for the role of œsadistic prison guard number two in a local stage company™s production of HBO™s Oz. I’m getting kind of jittery just imagining this guy coaching Kobe Bryant.
Something in Freddy Jackson’s not-quite-stirring performance of his “Jam Tonight” got the Bulls on point for the second half, though, as Ben Gordon in particular came back from a terrible first half to take over the game during the early fourth quarter. Luol Deng — who has arms long enough, and that he uses skillfully enough, to warrant this parenthetical mention — and Andres Nocioni also made themselves annoying during a second-half Chicago spurt that forced overtime.
The usual big names did their usual things for the Nets, but Antoine Wright, an erstwhile washout of a first-round pick whose fourth-year option was recently declined, was New Jersey™s unexpected star during the end of the game. Wright joined Richard Jefferson (29 points, including a late 3-point dagger), Vince Carter (24, mostly by dint of persistently jumping in the air, spinning around, flinging the ball towards the hoop and then staring beseechingly at a referee) above 20 points, hitting numerous big shots and playing brilliantly overall. I was glad for him: I’ve spent much of my Nets-fan life cheering for very similar players, usually talented dudes who tend to get down on themselves and whose evident dismay accrues in a compound-interest sort of fashion until eventually they become unusable. Wright had seemed to be on that path, but has at least and at last had his first really good game as a Net, two years after the team chose him in the 2005 NBA Draft. It’s something. And the Nets won. I don’t know if I mentioned that.
On the way out, my friends and I tried to figure out how many openers we’d been to. Some when we were kids, then the last of the Stephon Marbury era, the first of the Kidd era, several more since. As the silly old anthropomorphized Nets logo continues its long shuffle off the screen and out of state so another and then another corporate presence can superimpose itself, there was a persistent feeling of things changing. But sponsors — and ownership groups, and the bad ideas imposed by those groups — come and go, and have come and gone before. This is New Jersey: the most profound experience most people have of the state come while passing through it as quickly as possible. The fundamental failings of the Bruce Ratners of the world has always been that they didn™t take it seriously enough for that reason, that they never understood it as anything other than a place near New York. For those of us steeped in the state, who imagine some bit of that soured swamp air always occupying a corner of our lungs, everything about New Jersey seems profound. But what either will or will not happen to the Nets, and what has inarguably happened to the old Byrne, is not terribly profound: it™s simply the direction of sport, and it is here only what it is everywhere else.
The bus ride back to New York is similarly different, and similarly similar “ the landscape has changed, but not really. The state of things around the Nets™ court has changed and will continue to do so (a “destination mall” called Xanadu is currently rising in girders from the swamps), but what’s on the court still works for me.
And if and when that court goes quiet and some portion of this roster makes its way to Brooklyn, we’ll see how I feel. I can™t imagine I™ll be able to care very much. For now, though, the trip out from New York still seems eminently worth it. For everything around it, the joy of going to a Nets game “ both the familiarity of it and even the opportunity to bitch about that which isn™t familiar “ seems no older for the half-painful, fully palpable passage of time. Even if that time™s passage is, by now, as undeniable and jarring as those post-binge early-morning wake-ups.