In his 1970 book, The New York Mets: The Whole Story, Leonard Koppett concluded that by 1967, “the Mets had become a deeply rooted Long Island entity,” an allusion to geographic proximity, customer base and overall vibe. The Mets played in a Queens venue situated conveniently adjacent to the parkways and expressways that fed Nassau County. The families and groups that bought seats in the largest numbers tended to arrive at Shea Stadium — “where New York meets Long Island,” per Metropolitan Area sage William Joel — from the east, and many of their players opted to summer or settle nearby, over the city line. For a generation, there was a trend toward New Yorkers by name becoming Long Islanders by residence. The Mets put down stakes where they did to capitalize on that ongoing population shift. While they never forsook the identity on their birth certificate, let alone their skyline logo, they became, in de facto fashion, a Long Island baseball team.
The maps said Queens, home of the Mets (and the Jets) from 1964 forward, and Brooklyn were part of Long Island, but those of us in Nassau and Suffolk knew different. They were Queens and Brooklyn, part of New York City since 1898. We were Long Island. That wasn’t by any means a boast and it wasn’t necessarily a point of pride. It was enough for us to be included as part of New York. As Louis C.K. once said, when Americans are asked where they’re from, they instinctively estimate upwards to the nearest major city. The Long Island delineation was one we didn’t much think about until we were given a reason to contemplate it.
In the 1970s, we were. Smack in the middle of that decade, there was something verging on special about being a Long Island-based sports fan. Never mind that we had the Mets and the Hofstra-headquartered Jets in our backyard, with the temporarily displaced Yankees and Giants subletting Shea when the regular tenants were away on business trips. We had more going for us than two MLB teams and two NFL teams playing next door.
We had the Nets in the ABA. We had the Islanders in the NHL. We had the Sets in the WTT. We had the Tomahawks in the NLL. In 1975, we had four major league teams — every one of them televised over the air, at least a little — in one sparkling new building, the Nassau Coliseum.
We were Long Island. We weren’t just living close to big-time sports. We had our own big-time sports. We were, one could conclude if one dared, the next big thing.
Granted, the NLL — the National Lacrosse League — was major league only in the sense that I picked up a pamphlet in Roosevelt Field that said the Long Island Tomahawks put the Coliseum over the four-team top, making it the athletic equivalent of Quadrophenia. Perhaps it was an overblown claim, given that we would also have to take seriously World Team Tennis in general and the New York Sets in particular to lend the whole four-team concept validity. A couple of the Sets came to Roosevelt Field in the summer of ’75 and put on a demonstration of what we could see when we put down our pamphlets and came out to the Coliseum, just a few minutes away from the mall and just a few years old at that point.
I don’t know that the fleeting presence of the NLL (box lacrosse) or WTT (star-studded tennis played under television-friendly rules) made LI (ostensibly the suburbs of NYC) a better place to live, but I got a kick out of Long Island feeling just that much more major league because of them, even if the Tomahawks and the Sets were pretty clearly an addendum to our vibrant sporting scene. What really mattered was we had the Nets and we had the Islanders. They played in real leagues and had real futures.
The Nets, who arrived on our shores in 1968 and set up camp in Commack and then West Hempstead after washing out as the New Jersey Americans of Teaneck, were first. Even as a kid entranced by the red, white and blue ball, I knew there was something not quite sturdy about the American Basketball Association and something vaguely absurd about the Nets, not the least of which was their hamfisted attempt to align themselves by rhyme with the Mets and Jets (and how about them Sets?). But perhaps because it included a team wearing a New York moniker, the ABA was framed as a fairly legitimate league at the height of its viability, maybe not on a par with the NBA (which was only 21 years older, yet seemed the paragon of establishment), but plenty real. The ABA, circa February 11, 1972 — the night Nassau Coliseum opened with a 129-121 home team win over the Pittsburgh Condors — was no gimmicky fly-by-night operation. It featured Rick Barry on our beloved Nets and Artis Gilmore on the accursed Kentucky Colonels and Mel Daniels on the irksome Indiana Pacers and Julius Erving on the vexing Virginia Squires…until Erving ultimately replaced NBA-returnee Barry, which made the Nets exponentially more exciting and gave the ABA seemingly longer legs.
We had the best basketball player in the world. Right here. Right here on Long Island. He was from Roosevelt and he played in Uniondale and the word, according to some busybody at the beauty parlor where my mother got her hair done, was he lived in Lido Beach, one town over from us in Long Beach. My mother asked the mother of a friend of mine who lived in Lido whether she could confirm the rumor. That lady, however, wasn’t much of an ABA aficionado.
“Julius and Irving Who?” she inquired.
Maybe she was more in step with Long Island’s interest in Long Island’s professional basketball team than I was. The Nets, I learned only in the aftermath of the ABA, never actually sold out the Coliseum despite Barry leading them to the finals in 1972 and Dr. J winning them championships in 1974 and 1976. I kept telling my parents, who had held Knicks season tickets at exactly the right time in basketball history, that you’ve gotta jump on the Nets while you still can — they’re the next big thing!
And then they were gone. The Coliseum stopped having professional basketball. The ABA stopped existing. Red, white and blue basketballs bounced only in playgrounds. The Nets joined the NBA, but without Julius Erving. He was sold to the 76ers so Nets owner Roy Boe could make his “indemnity fees” nut. The NBA Nets spent one year on Long Island before hoofing it to a neighboring state that technically kept the team local, but not really. I continued to root for the New Jersey Nets, but more in theory than in practice. They no longer had the fun ball or the fun player or the fun league and they were no longer emblematic of my Island.
But we did have the Islanders, which didn’t mean all that much to me when they came skating along on October 7, 1972, as I’ve rarely had the patience to watch hockey for more than two minutes at any one time. The Isles did, however, begin to charm me the first moment they began to remind me of the 1969 Mets, which was early in their third season. I wasn’t all that interested in hockey, but I did love underdogs — especially underdogs who wore blue and orange and made Long Island their logo. They didn’t call themselves Long Island like the Tomahawks would, but they called themselves Islanders. That was taking local identity up a very significant notch.
The chemistry was just right. Within the realm of the National Hockey League, I became an Islanders fan. For a while I rooted for them and the Rangers (who practiced at a rink built where most of their players lived…in Long Beach) when possible, but unlike my continuing to pull for the Nets and the Knicks (since they were born in different leagues) and getting behind both the Jets and the Giants (same basic reason), I could see I’d have to choose between the Rangers and the Islanders (each of them an NHL product their whole lives). So I chose the Islanders. Or they chose me. When the Islanders won their first-ever playoff series, against the Rangers — who were never really “my team” by anything more than default — in April of 1975, I was overjoyed and I never looked back.
Five years later, the Islanders won a Stanley Cup. Then they won three more in the next three years. I never much followed hockey, but every spring I’d be real happy that the last team to stick it out from the Coliseum’s busiest year, the one that outlasted the Tomahawks (who went to their happy hunting ground with the original NLL in 1975) and the Sets (who moved to the Garden and became the Apples before the original WTT volleyed its last in 1978) and the Nets (endlessly obscure in an established league the way they never were when they were intermittent big shots in the fledgling ABA) brought championship after championship to Long Island. Uniondale was a sports capital. The Nassau Coliseum was a sports castle. That tickled me.
The last Islander Cup was won in 1983, the last year the Jets played at Shea. The Islanders’ dynastic aura wore off shortly thereafter. They’ve been mostly bad for a very long time. And soon, they won’t be ours anymore. Like the Nets already have, they are planning to move to Brooklyn…which is Long Island geographically and sort of historically if you remember your American Revolution…but not really.
From four teams at the Coliseum in 1975 to none come 2015. From Nassau County as big league to Nassau County as big nothin’, sportswise; even the Jets quit training here in 2008. Queens, meanwhile, has just the Mets after all these decades. Certainly they’re the one relatively hyperlocal team I would have kept within a county of where I sleep, but still. I’ve never stopped missing the ABA Nets and have maintained my faint allegiance to them in the NBA because I could trace their vaguely absurd ways all the way back to when they were in West Hempstead, back when the Coliseum shimmered as a great next step in their and Long Island’s development. The Brooklyn Nets are almost unrecognizable as the descendants of the team that played in the Island Garden (which an opponent referred to in retrospect as the Long Island Toilet). That’s probably great from a competitive standpoint, but a little sad from a red, white and blue ball lineage perspective. Then again, it’s not like they were going to roll into my immediate vicinity again, so better Flatbush and Atlantic and competent (and accessible by LIRR) than Newark and whatever they’ve been most of the time since 1977.
As for the Islanders, it’s not like I’ve been rushing to the Coliseum to cheer them on all these years. I’ve seen as many of their games there as I saw Nets games and Bob Hope concerts, for that matter: one. I was given a chance to vote them funding for a new arena in 2011 and I declined. I don’t know that I would have done it if the Islanders in Uniondale represented a major portion of my time or my identity. I do know that after living through the opening of one “state-of-the-art” amenity-laden sports venue in recent years, I wasn’t fired up to get another one online. Maybe the Coliseum — which still looks like 1972 from the outside — is outdated. Maybe “outdated” is one of those phrases sports team owners throw around to generate sympathy for their financial cause. Maybe the owner’s been great and the politicians are terrible. Maybe the New York Islanders of Brooklyn will be better off in the long run. Maybe with the trains running right up to the Barclays Center, I’ll see another of their games sometime in the distant future. I actually live pretty close to Uniondale, but not so close that driving there comes easy for me and my motoring anxieties.
But I’ll miss them a little anyway. I’ll miss the concept of being “big league” more than the reality of a perennially lousy club playing in an arena constantly dismissed as obsolete, but concepts are important, too — though mostly when you’re not distracted by more overwhelming concerns, which we sure as hell are on Long Island presently. I don’t know that if the NHL was active at the moment that the Islanders would be hailed as a rallying point for our storm-battered county, or if the so-called Gorton’s Fisherman logo of the mid-’90s would gain new resonance. (At least he was dressed for the occasion.)
I do know I wouldn’t buy any magical healing powers attributed to any sports team playing its games at times like these, just like I don’t infer anything automatically wonderful about people who don’t necessarily curl up and die at the first sign of adversity. Come back around during the third, fourth or fifth sign. Elected officials keep flattering our “resilience” after Sandy. “Long Islanders are tough. They’re resilient,” I keep hearing them say. You know what would make everybody here plenty resilient? Electricity. Gasoline. Unflooded basements. I’m plenty resilient since LIPA did my block a solid and got us going relatively soon after the lights went out. I’m resilient as hell having filled up my tank ahead of the wind and the rain. I live on a high floor and not on top of a body of water — boy, am I resilient.
I’m an amazing Long Islander when everything works. That resilience formula probably applies to the citizens of every county, regardless of the quantity of sports teams residing within its borders.