February 6, 2002

Net-Minders

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He used to get beat up by the big kids. He was thrown in a locker full of dirty things, left for dead, alone, crying, wanting a chance to explain himself. No, not Drew Bledsoe. I speak of the kid who used to wear the New Jersey Nets sweat-suit to school and claim that he was Sam Bowie when on the playground court.

Being a New Jersey Nets fan used to be a fun idiosyncrasy, a good conversation starter, an anecdote worth sharing, a true anomaly. However, the resurgence (er, surgence?) of the franchise from the Swamp State has made the Nets one of the most exciting teams in the NBA.

No, seriously.

My former JV high school basketball coach was one of those fun guys who everybody seemed to love. Part of his “fun factor” was reliant upon the fact that although he was a very knowledgeable basketball mind, he was a Nets fan. We, the loving players that we were, would constantly razz Mr. Fun Coach (not his name) for his obvious ignorance and say things such as, “Hey Coach [Mr. Fun] the Nets are bad.” We were bruuutal.

I also recall the slight chuckle I always gave my grandmother when she, knowing little of the galactic importance of professional basketball, would comment that she enjoyed the Nets for their announcer’s enthusiasm. Even she knew that to enjoy the Nets – for the Nets – was some sort of heinous sin. Instead, she would mute her television and listen to the mindless mumbling of the lovable, huggable Bob Poppa.

It is fun to talk about Coach Lotta-Fun (closer to his name) and Grandma loving the Nets, for their own reasons, and why they obviously did so for giggles’ sake. However, things change..yes even the Nets.

Now I find myself (a guru of all that is right with sports) switching the channel from the mindless pacing of my once beloved Knicks, to the electricity of the amazin-Nets.

In the last three months, the Nets have gone from perennial keepers of the basement, to an early season surprise, to a team worth including in any discussion of title contenders. They now hold the best record in the Eastern Conference heading into the All-Star Break and seem to have silenced all those who once believed their streak was a fluke.

The catalyst of the change is most notably the off-season acquisition of point guard Jason Kidd. Kidd is undoubtedly the finest floor general of this era (sorry Gary Payton) and has given a hall-of-fame type performance in the first half of the Nets’ season. He has most recently been rewarded for his efforts with a starting position in this Sunday’s All-Star Game.

Other major contributions have come from Keith Van Horn who went from a timid parameter swingman, to an aggressive inside presence. The tenacity of a healthy Kenyon Martin and the wild open-court speed of Kerry Kittles (finally he plays!) have also been crucial to the Nets’ 180-degree (like a triangle) turn. January’s NBA Rookie of the Month, Reggie Jefferson, is also improving daily and can be relied upon for a Vince-esque highlight on a nightly basis.

Head coach Byron Scott has inspired his players to this new level and has done so in a very unique fashion. Scott is a hands-on coach and fosters relationships with his players to learns how they are best motivated. He doesn’t use Zen Buddhism (see Lakers) or choke-holds (see Texas Tech), but a subtle player-friendly approach that draws the most out of each of his players.

Of course, Scott knows a thing or two about winning, having started on the Laker dynasty teams of the 1980s. He also knows a bit about fan-pleasing having accosted the fan-unfriendly and hated Karl Malone in a game earlier this season.

On Sunday, Kidd will start in his fifth All-Star Game, while Byron Scott will participate in his very first All-Star Game as the East coach. It will be a fine visual of New Jersey’s improvement and proof that these underdogs are for real.

It will also be the slimmest redemption for that kid in the sweat-suit. On Sunday, the once-bullied middle school drop-out will sit back in his one room apartment outside Schenectady, paint his lips with a rosy shade of red, fill his belly with the blood of hounds and laugh at all those who ever called him odd.


Archived article by Scott Jones