EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. --- When the New Jersey Devils won the Stanley Cup three years ago, the Nets' Richard Jefferson was still a University of Arizona undergrad. So, forgive his confusion over the proper protocol of championship parade routes.
Where does it go, the Nets young star wondered? He had his suspicions, but dared ask anyway: "The Turnpike?"
No, Richard. Not the Jersey Turnpike.
The parade route starts in the Meadowlands parking lot and ends, well, in the Meadowlands parking lot.
Call it the Canyon of Pylons.
"Only in Jersey," Jefferson said, shaking his head. "Only in Jersey."
Twenty years ago, Wayne Gretzky called the Devils a "Mickey Mouse operation," and now they play Disney's Mighty Ducks in the franchise's fourth Cup final in nine years. Now, they play for a chance at a third title.
Three years ago, the Nets won 26 games, stumbled back into the lottery and stayed without a playoff series victory since 1984. And then out of nowhere, Jason Kidd transformed the Nets from a punch-line and punching bag into two-time Eastern Conference Champions.
Exit 16W is begging for 16 victories out of the Devils and Nets, 16 victories in these playoffs to do something in the shadows of the Manhattan skyline and Madison Square Garden, something once so beyond belief: Turn the next two and a half weeks at the Meadowlands into a magical march, turn East Rutherford into Titletown U.S.A.
Just maybe, just maybe, it will go a ways to saving the Devils and Nets in the state.
But beyond the game night dressing of Springsteen soundtracks, Uncle Junior of the Sopranos singing national anthems and Joe Piscopo's Michael Buffer Act, there is an undercurrent of unrest for these Nets and Devils. The YankeeNets ownership has failed for five years to get its bid for a new downtown Newark arena through the state legislature. The two teams are losing millions of dollars a year in the Meadowlands, where the lease is so lousy for the state agency that runs Continental Arena, it loses money every time the Nets and Devils play a game.
The Nets still can't sell out most regular season games unless they're playing Michael Jordan, Shaq and Allen Iverson. The Nets have Jason Kidd every night, but Vince Carter sold out this year.
The Devils don't sell out unless Rangers and Flyers fans pack the place to cheer New York and Philadelphia.
Northern Jersey can be a tough sports sell, where loyalties still run deep with old-time Knicks and Rangers fans, where public transportation access to the arena makes it an impossible trek for tens of thousands of fans. Work in Manhattan and live in Jersey? How do you leave the city early on the train, get home to Jersey, pack up the family and make it for a 7:30 p.m. start? You don't. Ticket prices are high, the market's economic condition is flat and the way this ownership badmouths Continental Arena as it begs for a welfare check to fund its Newark palace, why would anyone go to a game here?
These owners are absolute beauties. They bought the Nets as a philanthropic proposition, promising to construct a downtown Newark Arena with private funds. This lasted five minutes, until they climbed into bed with George Steinbrenner. Together, they purchased the Devils and started on the way to a television sports empire with the YES Network.
Principal owner Lewis Katz had a horrible start to his Nets ownership era in 1998, doing something that scientists had previously believed impossible: Katz turned John Calipari into a sympathetic figure. He couldn't just fire him in the lock out season at 3-17. No, he had to drag him out of an office and make him do a perp walk through Miami Arena and into a waiting black car. Everyone was standing there, jaws dropped, in utter disbelief over the sheer humiliation.
After Katz hired Rod Thorn a year later, the Nets struggled to a 26-victory season and Katz started meddling again. By now, ownership had moved his elite hockey executive, Lou Lamoriello, into a CEO role overseeing the Nets and Devils. Thorn had a trade he wanted to make: Stephon Marbury for Jason Kidd. Katz was reluctant. He loved Marbury. And truth be told, he had little idea who Kidd was. There was a genuine chance this trade could've been blocked and this renaissance never would've happened.
Finally, Lamoriello told Katz: If the basketball people want to make this trade, let them make it. Ownership relented and two years later, there was Katz in the hallway outside the Nets locker room the other night, after the Nets 10th straight playoff victory, yelling toward his GM, "That man's a genius!" Whatever. Thorn just bowed his head, smiled, understanding that his standing could change back fast with his fickle bosses.
As the Nets and Devils pushed to the Finals, what are these owners doing? Celebrating? Thanking the executives making it possible? No, they're leaking stories that Lamoriello will be ousted from the basketball side of operations, leaving him back with his hockey empire. Lamoriello might have liked to go back to hockey, anyway, entrusting the basketball side to the good hands of Thorn, but he sure didn't deserve to get embarrassed this way.
"I'm not upset and I'm not mad," Lamoriello said by phone Monday. "But I'm more disappointed that whoever is doing this, for whatever their own self-interest, that they don't care more about not allowing any distractions taking place with these two teams playing for championships right now.
"At this point, it disappoints me that they don't know the difference between 'I' and 'we.' "
Welcome to Exit 16W, where just Jason Kidd and Kenyon Martin, Scott Stevens and Martin Brodeur, play nice and play together. The future is sure fuzzy here, so it is wisest for Jersey's populace to live in the purity of the present. Together, the Nets and Devils are angling for those parades through the Canyon of Pylons in the parking lot.
What was that again, Richard Jefferson?
Only in Jersey.
Only in Jersey.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a sports columnist for The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at ESPNWoj@aol.com.