This excerpt appears in the book Brooklyn Bounce: The Highs and Lows of Nets Basketball’s Historic First Season in the Borough by Jake Appleman. The author spoke with Bill Littlefield on Only A Game. (Listen to our interview with Wilson and read Bill’s book review.)
Appleman prefaces this excerpt by setting the stage for the story.
“So much of the Nets’ transition to Brooklyn was about the brand of Brooklyn, the idea of Brooklyn, or Brooklyn downtown where they were to begin playing. The borough’s name even became a crowd chant, with its energy (or lack thereof) epitomizing good times and bad. But the thing that seems to get lost in the shuffle is that the Nets arrived in Brooklyn from New Jersey, after a disastrous stretch of play that was both depressing and interesting to observe. To understand why the Nets organization pushes so hard for Brooklyn prominence is, in a way, to understand how rough (and occasionally humorous) things got as they said goodbye to Newark.”
Arriving on the job in Newark, Avery Johnson donned his happy hat, highlighted by a megawatt smile. Nets basketball was a crash course in pride-swallowing, as the Little General fought his own frustration on a daily basis for two years. He brought his football metaphors, having given his hometown New Orleans Saints a motivational speech during training camp in 2006. He brought his conversational head bob, as if he was digesting your query inside his brain by whirling it around. Upon hiring, he brought the best winning percentage in NBA history. But the narrative shifted in Newark, and Johnson mobilized. He became a proponent of battling— specifically, the idea of battling—after tough losses.
Give our guys credit. We battled.
Johnson spent much of his time in Newark selling the idea of Brooklyn, unable to pretend that the imminent commercial breakup between the Nets and New Jersey didn’t exist, which was fine because the Prudential Center was always understood to be a rental, but not fine because the day-to-day machinations of the New Jersey Nets lost meaning.
People can joke about how the Nets often meant nothing, but there’s a tangible difference between a road to nowhere (2007–10) and a temporary dead end (2010–12). And so it went, sort of. Sixteen months until Brooklyn! Five equinoxes remaining in New Jersey! We need to trade for Carmelo Anthony; he is a superstar and technically from Red Hook!
Even though they’d yet to move out of their practice facility in East Rutherford, the Nets couldn’t wait to get out of New Jersey. The team wore throwback jerseys from their historic Long Island days, deep blue threads with the words NEW YORK emblazoned across the front with red-and-white trim, an eye-catching color contrast with a purpose. Johnson aided the team’s forward-looking marketing by making periodic appearances in Brooklyn, and his praise for the Jersey fans who stuck around to support the team often felt faxed in from Flatbush.
There was the night when Nicole Polizzi, Snooki of Jersey Shore fame, met Kim Kardashian courtside. It was a moment that seemed to signal the end of times. The last home game Williams played in the 2011 season before undergoing wrist surgery wasn’t even televised. In the green room after the game there was only a franchise player in flux and a small group of reporters. It was nice and relatively real.
The Nets lost twice as many games as they won during the lockout-shortened 2012 season. Jeremy Lin’s ascent began against Williams and the Nets at Madison Square Garden. With the Nets looking for a little transitional luck into Brooklyn, Lin’s emergence—known as Linsanity—took the NBA by storm, and the Nets suffered through one of the most injury-plagued years any NBA team has experienced. The injury report—printed on sheets that the PR offices handed out—became a running joke. By June, four previously healthy Nets had injuries requiring surgery and screws in their feet. Johnson continue to coach a misshapen roster, and the Nets continued to battle. But with a new logo on its way, the team couldn’t get out of the idea of New Jersey fast enough.