Nets say farewell to New Jersey

NEWARK, N.J. -- The New Jersey Nets played their final game in the Garden State on Monday night, and the occasion was enough to bring out a sellout crowd.

Rapper and part-owner Jay-Z came. So did former Nets Micheal Ray Richardson, Derrick Coleman, Kenny Anderson and Kendall Gill, among others.

There were video messages from Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin, Vince Carter, Buck Williams and even fan favorite Brian Scalabrine. And there was a Bruce Springsteen "Born to Run" video played with Nets highlights at the end.

Kidd wanted to be here in person, but he has a championship to defend in Dallas.

"We had some great times in New Jersey," Kidd said in a text message on Monday. "No matter how many people came to the game."

Just like when relationships end, even the most tumultuous or drama-filled ones, you can't help but think about the beginning when it's over.

Kidd would have been thrilled to play before a crowd like this one on Monday night. In fact, he might've given the Nets a discount on his $103 million contract when he re-signed if the Nets had drawn the way they did on this final night of NBA basketball in New Jersey.

When he made his Nets debut on Oct. 30, 2001, only 8,749 were there to witness the beginning of what is now remembered as the Nets' golden era. And that number may have been embellished at that.

"We might have had 3,000 people," Kidd loves to recall. "I think Michael Jordan and the Wizards were playing the Knicks that night and the Yankees were in the World Series, too. We were up against a lot of stuff."

During the majority of their 35 seasons in New Jersey, the Nets seemed to be up against more stuff than any other NBA franchise. They seemed to be cursed from the moment they sold Dr. J to the Philadelphia 76ers in 1976.

Their history is well-documented. The past three-plus decades have been filled with losses -- 1,635 defeats, to be exact -- some tragic moments, too many injuries to remember, and enough drama to make the Nets the longest-running NBA reality show before there were even reality shows on TV.

The New Jersey Nets were rarely dull. They would have exciting spurts and tease fans from time to time before something bad would inevitably happen. Unfortunately, even the worst happened to the franchise.

"I thought we had something but Drazen [Petrovic] got killed in a car accident and that turned the organization back a few years, maybe even longer than that," Anderson said. "We were on the cusp. We could compete with the best, and it took us back. That was the problem with the Nets. Always settled for mediocrity."

"We joked around, me and Derrick, we used to practice at APA trucking facility," Anderson continued. "We'd share a locker next to a trucking guy. The Nets had different coaches, different players, it was like a revolving door. There wasn't no consistency with the organization. We had seven owners at the time."

But Anderson proudly pointed to how Kidd turned things around. The organization did the same. The Nets appropriately paid their respects to past stars such as Buck Williams, but they got the biggest cheers when showing videos or highlights from the Nets' two NBA Finals runs. Even Scalabrine drew a roar when his video message was played.

When they honored some of their former greats on the floor during halftime, they had Todd MacCulloch and Kerry Kittles trot out the franchise's two Eastern Conference championship trophies.

Like Kidd did on Monday night, I thought about my years with the Nets, as the team's beat writer for the New York Daily News. I spent five years as the paper's backup Knicks and Nets writer before covering the Nets full-time from 2001 to 2006. When I first sat down with coach Byron Scott as the beat writer during the summer of 2001, I remember him telling me, "Maybe you will be our good luck charm."

A month later, Rod Thorn found the franchise's charm when he traded Stephon Marbury for Kidd. While some long-time beat writers labored through horrible seasons of losing basketball in New Jersey, I had the good fortune of covering a team that made the playoffs every season, starting with two consecutive NBA Finals appearances.

The Nets played some of the most exciting basketball the metropolitan area has seen, and yet few saw it on a nightly basis as the Nets played before largely empty seats.

I was there when Kidd predicted the Nets would be a .500 team or better upon his arrival, and some writers practically busted out laughing. But the Nets won, and they did it in thrilling fashion.

Kidd threw some of the sickest passes I have ever seen. Besides the almost nightly alley-oops, my two favorite Kidd passes both came against the Knicks, a team Kidd always strived to make the highlight reel against.

During one game at Continental Airlines Arena, Kidd rolled a curving bowling ball-like pass around a Knick down court to Lucious Harris for a layup.

But that wasn't nearly as incredible as the no-look beauty he delivered one night at the Garden. Standing at midcourt, Kidd jumped in the air and received an outlet pass by tapping it with his back to the basket to a streaking Richard Jefferson behind him. A surprised Jefferson could only laugh as he caught the pass and dunked.

I saw some incredible dunks as well. So many of them were authored by Martin on powerful alley-oops. But the best of them all was by Carter, who threw down a nasty one-handed dunk over Alonzo Mourning in a game in Miami. Mourning actually fouled Carter as he rose up, but the guard kept elevating before dunking on Mourning.

I also had the great fortune of covering some incredible games, such as Game 5 of the 2002 Eastern Conference quarterfinals between the Nets and Indiana Pacers. The Nets needed double overtime to survive Reggie Miller and his 3-point daggers in the deciding game.

I saw Kidd single-handedly take over and will the Nets to wins over the Boston Celtics and Detroit Pistons in the playoffs, only to fall short in the NBA Finals to Shaq, Kobe and the Los Angeles Lakers and Tim Duncan and the San Antonio Spurs.

While I saw explosive plays on the court, I also had to cover explosions off it, like any former or current Nets beat writer has become accustomed to. It didn't matter if the Nets made the Finals, there was always some sort of ticking time bomb waiting to go off, whether it was Keith Van Horn being criticized by teammates and traded or Byron Scott getting fired.

During the 2003-04 season, after the Nets had been to two straight Finals, the Nets went through the motions of a 110-63 loss in Memphis in December. The team didn't open their locker room immediately following the debacle. One of my mentors, Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, always told me to beware of ugly 20- to 30-point losses and how blowouts like that often can be the result of a toxic situation in the locker room.

Following this lifeless loss, the door to the Nets' locker room was slightly ajar because there were all these electrical wires running through it from the hallway. Outside the door and the thick wall, reporters could detect, faintly, a voice screaming. It was hard to tell who was doing the screaming, but most of the writers assumed a frustrated Scott was chewing out his team.

The next day, a source called and asked me, "What makes you think Byron was the one doing the screaming?" Instead, it was Kidd and Martin who yelled at Scott and the coaching staff. Scott was fired a little more than a month later.

I learned that you can't always get away from the Nets during a day off either. During a day I was scheduled to be off, Martin and teammate Alonzo Mourning nearly got into a brawl in practice. Mourning was making a comeback while fighting kidney disease, and was one of the last ones to finish a suicide drill, when Martin and Jefferson were heard laughing. The ultra-serious Mourning didn't appreciate the laughter, snapping back, "This ain't funny."

Jefferson replied, "You're right. It's hilarious." When Martin and Mourning began to exchange words, with Mourning questioning Martin's ability to be a leader while in the training room nursing an ankle injury, Martin shot back with, "Oh, my kidney, my kidney."

I may not have been around for Micheal Ray Richardson, Super John Williamson, Drazen, DC and the "Whoop-de-damn-do!" years. But I did get my first taste of some of the Nets' trademark zaniness as the backup Nets writer in 1997.

I vividly remember my first time in the Nets' locker room. I introduced myself to Jayson Williams and he asked me what my ethnicity was. When I told him I was Thai, Williams loudly barked, "I hate Thai food!"

The Nets always had a cast of characters and misfits. Some of them happily returned on Monday night and received a warm farewell standing ovation from the 18,711 in attendance.

Kidd drew the biggest cheers of the night with his halftime video message to the New Jersey fans he would have loved to address in person.

"Being a Net was a great time of my career and a great honor," Kidd said in the video. "So I hope you guys enjoy tonight and hopefully I'll see you guys soon. Take care."