The Brooklyn Nets Will Never be New Jersey’s Team
Jersey Pride (mine, at least) is too strong to support the best NBA team in New York City
There is nothing remarkable about living in New Jersey. Well, we do have the best shoreline in the United States outside of California — go anywhere south of Jersey and you might die if you enter the water, no joke — but we’re a state known best for being New York’s bedroom and not much else.
I’ve come to accept, and even grow fond of New Jersey’s mediocrity. Despite our prominence of some of the most pivotal moments that helped shape the entire country (George Washington crossing the Delaware River), we can’t seem to shake the stench of being the nation’s armpit (I guess we never did figure out how to make those refineries odorless). This goes doubly for sports, in which New Jersey has been something of an afterthought.
Congestion in New York ensures that plenty of athletes live in New Jersey. Plenty of them play here too, thanks to the Meadowlands in East Rutherford being home to the New York Jets and Giants. But outside of the New Jersey Devils, none of the professional teams boast our name. The Garden State is a forgotten one, and now, with the addition of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant to the Brooklyn-Formerly-New-Jersey-Nets, the legacy of New Jersey sports slips even further out of the spotlight.
A polarity exists between North and South Jersey, fueling a longstanding identity crisis. Stray anywhere north of Elizabeth and you’re rooting for New York teams (except the Jets). South of Trenton and it’s Philadelphia’s territory. There are topographic reasons for the split — the suburban cul-de-sacs of South Jersey more closely mirror rolling plains of Pennsylvania, while the stacked cities of North Jersey are within spitting distance of the Big Apple. Where you live didn’t just determine who you rooted for; It defined what you ate (pork roll/Taylor ham), where you went on the weekends and how much you cried when Derek Jeter retired.
I grew up smack dab in the middle of the state. Philadelphia and New York City were both within arm’s reach, but neither place offered me the convenience of travel afforded to my South/North Jersey brethren. During college I lobbied my friends for recognition that a third Jersey, Central Jersey, did in fact exist. Mere streets separated bagel shops in my town, but there wasn’t a consensus on how the meat on the menu was listed. Central Jersey is a vexing place. Its existence is neither confirmed nor denied and its barriers are constantly in flux.
The amorphous nature of my home influenced my sports fandom. I felt guilty supporting the New York Knicks and its hard knock life. Blue and orange was never perched atop my head or splashed across my back. Like a blind devotion to one’s borough, being a Knicks was earned and I had no right to encroach on that support system. I felt similarly distant to the Philadelphia 76ers, though I practically lived at the Wachovia Center. (I’m still pissed that Allen Iverson didn’t come out to high-five me and my friends when we lined up courtside. Shout outs to Eric Snow. He showed up.)
Geographically the Nets were a godsend. Shoot up I-95 and you could be in your seats in plenty of time to watch Kenyon Martin double clutch dunks in warmups. And while they were mere minutes from New York City, The Meadowlands were trapped by the swampy marshland I’d grown fond of in the middle of the state. The Nets’ identity, blend of the City’s affluence and Philly’s blue-collar grit, sat perfectly with a 10-year-old Me from central Jersey. (Not to mention the blue-collar ticket prices. The Nets were one of the league’s worst attended teams throughout the 2000s, which meant I got to see plenty of games on the cheap.)
On the court, New Jersey fielded some of the most entertaining, if forgettable, athletes. Martin and Richard Jefferson were a pair of high-flyers who never really got their due time in the spotlight. The former topped out as a one-time all-star and the latter, while productive, fell into NBA oblivion until winning the 2016 title with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Even Jason Kidd didn’t really peak until he left New Jersey and won a title with the Dallas Mavericks in 2011.
The Nets were an incomplete puzzle, the pieces never fit perfectly together. We had a pre/post-Kidney surgery Alonzo Mourning for exactly 30 games. We had pre-White Mamba Brian Scalabrine. We even had post-Jail Blazers Cliff Robinson, which did little to add to the Nets’ NBA street cred. New Jersey never really figured out where the spotlight would land, but that made the team even more lovable. Even the early Brooklyn Nets were a blast to watch, as a team with NBA newcomers (Pre-3-point Brook Lopez, Mason Plumlee) got the chance to hold court with post-prime legends (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce), without ever really exceeding the New Jersey’s statewide threshold for greatness.
This new Brooklyn Nets team, however, has traded in the persistent swamp stench for New York’s glitz. Adding Irving and Durant, while supreme basketball moves, draws the team further from its New Jersey roots. Brooklyn is now the best team in New York, and as such will run New York as far as the sports scene is considered. These Nets aren’t a decent-to-great bunch of NBA Finals losses, they are a real contender to win the east for the foreseeable future (once Durant is healthy, of course). Though I’ll still watch Nets basketball on YES Network — the broadcast team of Ian Eagle and Sarah Kustok are a riot — I do so longing for the days of yesteryear. (At one point the team was so awful Kustok and Co. started playing Pictionary on the game calendar.)
My Jersey Pride is too strong to ardently root for the Brooklyn Nets. From the worryingly cheap tickets to those grey alternate jerseys, the NJ Nets filled a hole in my basketball fandom. I’ll miss the days of New Jersey Nets mediocrity. As a New Jerseyan, that’s all I ever needed.