My father has a game he plays with/against other Jersey-born members of his generation that I call “Tales of Jersey.” It’s easy enough to explain: one participant lobs an example of extravagant political malfeasance towards the other participant, who responds in kind. They then exchange Jersey-related corruption baroqueries until the food arrives or the cab ride is over or whatever. I’ve seen this go on for some time, the volleys escalating from the mundane to the frankly expressionistic. Or, if you want examples, my father offers a tunnel connecting a Jersey City mob bagman’s basement with that of a local ward boss and the cab driver returns an entire school in Perth Amboy knowingly constructed on an incandescently toxic Superfund site.
Whether these (actual) examples are true or not is almost beside the point-the former’s unverifiable, the latter seems to be one of the few things of which former Perth Amboy Mayor Joseph Vas wasn’t actually indicted. The important part, the truly New Jersey part, is the game itself, and its refining of disgrace into laughing, what-can-you-do defiance. The New Jersey in which I grew up was different than my father’s-less heavily accented, less ostentatious in its various ridiculousnesses, suburban-but my friends and I grew up playing a version of the same game. We still do, kind of, although of late the fun has gone out of it. With the really juicy/depressing corruption confined to the state’s increasingly Thunderdome-y cities, we found our disgrace-to-defiance inspiration in the New Jersey Nets, the Garden State’s enduringly and occasionally endearingly hapless NBA team.
For roughly two decades, we did this. But by the time I walked through the turnstiles on Monday night to watch the Nets’ last game at their home court of 29 years, the disgrace-to-defiance vein represented by the Nets was pretty well tapped out.
There are a number of reasons why this happened, but I’ll begin with the Great Man Theory of how things come to suck. All those cartoonish “Tales of Jersey” villains-Jersey City’s Frank Hague and his 30 years of graft-intensive mayoralty; clowns like Hague’s successor, “The Little Guy” John V. Kenny; venal flyweights like Joseph Vas and a dozen others like him-turned out to be nothing compared to Nets’ owner Bruce Ratner and his marketing guru, Brett Yormark. Those slick motherfuckers came across the river to Jersey, bought the Nets from the gaggle of hapless millionaires that had mismanaged the team for decades, and showed a state that knows from ruins how ruination is done. On Monday, in a swamp-bound, half-empty arena dwarfed by the nearby hulk of a failed “destination mall” called Xanadu, an embarrassingly outsized chapter in my life closed with a half-assed Nets loss to the mediocre Charlotte Bobcats. I was too worn out, both by the experience of the game and Ratner’s tenure as Nets owner, to even feel bad about it.
The Nets’ home court has been called by many names-it’s currently known as The Izod Center, and was previously the Continental Airlines Arena and Brendan Byrne Arena-but it has never been called a good place to watch a basketball game. This has something to do with the quality of basketball on display: although a few great years early last decade ensured that the team’s record at the arena is well above .500, this year’s Nets spent most of the season mounting a (characteristically futile) challenge to the NBA record for fewest wins in a season. It also has something to do with the arena itself, which offers decent enough sightlines but which is also pretty ugly even by the standards of Reagan-era arenas and seemingly designed to muffle crowd noise. During the Ratner Administration, though, the worst thing about being at a Nets game has been being at the mercy of Brett Yormark, a slim, slick marketing dude who looks notably like disgraced Jersey governor and “Gay American” James McGreevey.
So, quickly, quickly: Ratner’s Nets lose a heroic amount of money every year-somewhere in the neighborhood of $35 million per-and Forbes pegged their debt-to-value ratio at an astonishing 77 percent. Ratner bought the Nets in 2004, in order to make a new Nets arena on Flatbush Avenue-originally one of those crashed-UFO Frank Gehry designs, then a widely derided pseudo-fieldhouse, and now a compromise between the two: the centerpiece of his plan to redevelop Atlantic Yards. If it ever gets built, the arena will be a very lucrative revenue source, but for the past six years Ratner has been stuck actually paying rent to the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority for the privilege of playing in the erstwhile Byrne Arena. With his debt reaching levels untenable even for real estate developers, Ratner will soon sell the Nets to Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, unless Prokhorov’s dealings with Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe derail the sale. So, yes: a class act all around. And yet still, somehow, something both sully-able and sullied by Yormark’s assaultive marketing.
In an attempt to lose maybe slightly less than $35 million per year, Ratner raised ticket prices and turned Yormark loose to find as many revenue streams as possible in every Nets home game. Yormark’s buzz-grabbing marketing schemes have gotten the most media attention: luring fans with the jerseys of other teams’ star players was a recent low point, but the guy is always on the grind. When fans wore paper bags on their heads to protest the team’s losing, Yormark threw together a bag-related promotion for the next home game. Nothing is too abasing or too glib. But the gimmicks were not what turned New Jersey against the Nets.
There’s a macro and a micro answer to that one. The macro would be the re-branding that essentially removed New Jersey from the New Jersey Nets. The words “New Jersey” came off the team’s road uniforms and you won’t find them anywhere in the arena. Even the abbreviation is gone: if you watch a Nets game on TV-and please, don’t actually do this-the score will read something like “DALLAS 110, NETS 82.” The relationship of people from New Jersey to the idea of being from Jersey is a complicated thing, but suffice to say that most anyone from the state would consider this a pretty brazen dick move.
The damage done by the rebranding is years old, though. It was the micro, really, that ruined Monday night for me. The confluence of all those newly opened revenue streams makes for a sense-flooding fan experience that Yormark’s slogan touts as “More Than A Game”-an evening out that only tangentially involves the (New Jersey) Nets. Everything from timeouts to halftime to the senior citizen dance team (yes) is sponsored; the basket stanchions alone bear the logos of seven separate corporate entities. Even the roster seems to have been designed with brand-growth in mind. When the Nets dumped well-compensated star Richard Jefferson via trade two years ago, their haul included some expiring contracts and a Chinese forward named Yi Jianlian. Yi (pronounced “Ee”) is seven feet tall, reasonably athletic, and as physically assertive as a marshmallow Peep. He’s useless as a player, but the fact that Yi is from China has enabled the Nets to televise their blowout losses there. Where once the arena displayed out-of-town scores or game stats, there are now the logos of various Chinese corporations. I’d love to tell you their names, but I can’t read Mandarin.
The stream of assaultive marketing is actually least notable and offensive when Yi is out there getting pushed around by opposing forwards. It’s during breaks in the action when things really go to hell. A braying emcee takes to the floor, trailed by the team’s furry mascot “Sly Fox” and what appears to be a stocky little person in a similar costume-this would be “Lil’ Sly”-who is, as often as not, wearing rollerblades. Together, they shoot t-shirts into the crowd from the Chipotle Mexican Grill t-shirt cannon. They shriek at you to remain seated for the halftime show, brought to you by Haier. They exhort you to give it up for the NETSational Senior Dancers, who dance to Black Eyed Peas songs and are brought to you by SportsCare Physical Therapy. During longer timeouts there are as many as two dozen people on the court, in what amounts to a nightmarishly over-sponsored indoor version of that Gathering of the Juggalos infomercial: costumed midgets on rollerblades and senior citizens doing the running man and gymnasts break-dancing and cheerleaders grinningly hurling t-shirts into the stands and the airy poompf of the t-shirt cannon and actual stilt walkers all up in that bitch. Every moment of silence is gone, branded, amped-up. It’s fucking exhausting.
What was most disheartening, this last night at the Byrne, was how rote it all was. A brief video on the scoreboard paid tribute to the long-tenured NJSEA employees-19 years, 22 years, more-who will presumably be losing their jobs when the Nets leave. The video was followed, seconds later, by the ponytailed emcee striding to center court and bellowing out the location of a Pirate’s Booty-sponsored lucky seat contest winner. Some short videos paid tribute to great-ish Nets teams past-the ‘83–84 team that dispatched the defending champion Philadelphia 76ers in the playoffs; the ‘01–02 and ‘02–03 teams that were the only Nets squads ever to reach the NBA Finals-but for the most part it was business as usual. The only former Nets eminences in attendance were either playing for or coaching the visiting Bobcats. My friends and I walked around the top of the arena at halftime, the same goofy concrete lap we made as hyper tweenagers, and we had our moments of private and shared reverie, but the whole experience resisted sentiment.
We’re not 12 years old anymore, of course, and will never again need the Nets or any other sports team as much as we needed them then, and that’s for the best. And yet when the arena emptied out, when we watched them pull down the shutters on the stripped-bare souvenir stands-Nets onesies were marked down to $2, Nets license plate frames to $5-it still meant something, because of what it all had once meant. But the experience itself-the desultory loss, the incessant product placements and unconvincing piped-in crowd noise-insisted that it was all surpassingly insignificant. More Than A Game, of course, but nothing more.
And then out into the swampy night, the sourdough air and the weird darker-than-the-night shadows cast by the abandoned mall and the hulking red ski slope (seriously) that was to be Xanadu’s main attraction. We got onto a shuttle bus that was supposed to take us to the Senator Frank R. Lautenberg Secaucus Junction Station, and the bus, implausibly, impossibly, got lost. Didn’t get on Route 3, wound up on the wrong spur of the New Jersey Turnpike. New Jersey residents will most definitely let you know if you’re on the wrong spur of the Turnpike, and a mutiny of sorts started in the front of the bus. The driver kept on, and we were in North Arlington and then outer Newark, the Jersey wetlands dark all around, the Manhattan skyline distant and bright.
The bus driver was commanded by a group of passengers-led by a screaming lady I never identified and the most assertive of a three-man crew of teenagers who all sounded oddly like Jay Leno, right down to their shared nasal lisp-to drop us off at Newark’s Penn Station, seven marshy miles east of our original destination. My friends and I were shocked silent by this point. It had been over an hour since the game ended and we were still on the bus, still across the river and another hour from our homes in New York City. The driver agreed to go to Newark Penn Station.
The lead Leno Kid walked back up the aisle as the bus made its way down the darkened Raymond Boulevard, towards the train station. “You should’ve heard my line,” he said to his friends and to me and mine, beaming. “I said to the bus driver, ‘Well, thank you for this be-yoo-tiful tour of New Jersey.’” He repeated it a moment later, seemingly still awed that he could’ve come up with something so crazily, so perfectly apt.
David Roth is a writer from New Jersey who lives in New York. He co-writes the Wall Street Journal’s Daily Fix, contributes to the sports blog Can’t Stop the Bleeding and has his own little website. His favorite Van Halen song is “Hot For Teacher.”