On Saturday night in Washington, the Mets made like a banana and split  — happy dad joke to all you fathers out there. As soon as they were done ensuring they wouldn’t follow up on their afternoon success  and sweep, I flipped from SNY to TNT and USA. Mostly TNT. The leagues that are in playoff mode and their network partners kept scheduling the Nets and the Islanders simultaneously. Here inside the Nassau Coliseum c. 1975 Venn diagram of my wintertime affections, it made for a vigorous remote control workout. On nights when the Mets were also active, I needed to keep a stockpile of AA batteries handy.
This time, I was out of the Barn, mostly. I would have liked to have immersed myself in the Isles’ defense of Uniondale against Tampa Bay, given that any game at the Coliseum is potentially the last game at the Coliseum, but I had only so much bandwidth to give to must-win playoff action. The fact that I’m using the phrase “bandwidth” in this regrettable context indicates I could process only so much tension-tinged sports at once.
Mostly, I watched the Nets on Saturday night. Their must-win was the mustest, both mathematically, as they were tied with the Bucks at three games apiece, and personally. The Nets are my team in a way no other team is my team besides the Mets. To be fair, no team is my team the way the Mets are, but if there’s a slot available for waking minutes if not hours obsessing over the fortunes of somebody else, the plurality goes to the Nets. Maybe not every season. Definitely this season.
Fellow Mets fans, no matter what it felt like in the late ’90s in New York, aren’t hard to find if you’re a Mets fan. There is community in Mets fandom. There is community right here. A Mets fan can align his social media to never be out of the Met loop whether it’s for news or opinion or just blowing off steam. If I walk outside, as I used to with regularity prior to March 2020, I’ll give off Met vibes and as often as not have them returned. It’s both organic and earned. I’ve been a veritable full-time Mets fan for a long time.
This has never been my experience as someone whose favorite basketball team is the Nets. There are Nets fans out there, but I’ve never much connected with them. When I let my Netsness be known in polite conversation with those who have no particular interest, or dare to read what strangers have to say on the subject, I get little satisfaction. Well-meaning older types will invoke Rick Barry and Dr. J, two idols of my youth, yet neither of whom were available Saturday night; it’s as if the last four-and-a-half decades never happened. Embittered North Jerseyans inform me they’re still sore about the move to Brooklyn. Aloof Brooklynites sniff they aren’t impressed that they received their very own major league franchise. Knicks fans haughtily wave their participation ribbons. #NBATwitter is harsh, selectively memoried and mostly in it for the memes. Save for a few virtual fist bumps, I’m all alone in my Nets fandom.
Well, not totally alone. I’ve got Stephanie, my first-round draft choice 34 springs ago, still next to me on the couch for Nets nights. We don’t call them that, they just develop that way. Hey, the Nets are on tonight. We’re set for the evening. Ian Eagle. Sarah Kustok. “Wear Brooklyn at?” with its photos of Nets gear being modeled around the world. Our team. Like the Mets, but a little different from the Mets. Stephanie watches the Mets with me. Stephanie and I watch the Nets together. Not as intently or urgently as we do the Mets, but, suddenly, for a very long time and with undeniable continuity. Most years they get winter nights and whatever sliver of non-Met spring they can claim.
Oh, and we watch them of the frigging YES Network. We sit through commercials for Yankee programming and propaganda. Tell me that’s not devotion to a cause.
In the house where I grew up, we had what we called the sloped room. It was a small room upstairs whose ceilings were low and sloped (thus the name). The decor was cramped, dank and dusty. I was supposed to close its door when company came. Yet it was also a very important room because I piled very important stuff in there. Books and magazines that didn’t make the cut in my bedroom. My team-classified shoeboxes of baseball cards. My LPs and 45s, arranged alphabetically within one of the iron milk crates my mother insisted we stash in the trunk when she spied them by the curb of the local Masonic temple. She considered herself an interior decorator who was going to do creative things with those crates. Little did she know she invented dorm decor.
The Nets are the sloped room of my sports consciousness. The New York Nets. The New Jersey Nets. The Brooklyn Nets. Maybe a scrap of paper on which there is scrawled in pencil “New Jersey Americans,” as if I was going to do something with that one day, like my mother and the milk crates. I’ve got my Nets stored upstairs. Now and then I take my Nets stuff out of the sloped room upstairs (points to his head) to look through it. Romance for the red, white and blue ball. Regret for the sale of Julius Erving — embers of anger at Roy Boe, too. The spelling of Piscataway. Stoic admiration for Buck Williams. Lingering sorrow over the loss of Wendell Ladner and Drazen Petrovic. Stray playoff appearances and their corresponding early exits. Uniforms that gave way to other uniforms. Arenas that gave way to other arenas. Jason Kidd & Co. for the extended moment that you couldn’t have a greater Association conversation without the Nets. Brook Lopez bridging a couple of rivers. Remembering it’s “Spencer Dinwiddie” and not “Spencer Dinwiddle”. Cold winter nights. Losing records. Records edging past .500. Hope, but no expectations. Quiet affinity that rarely left the house.
Then the current era, which couldn’t have been more current or more vibrant or more crackling with expectation. It either began in late June of 2019 with the shock announcement that Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving were coming to Brooklyn or this past January when James Harden managed to join them. I’m not a huge basketball fan — if I were, maybe I’d be writing a blog about it — but even I understood who these guys were.
They were Nets.
For my 50+ years of Nets allegiance, even in the days of Doc and Billy Paultz the Whopper and Bill Melchionni and Super John Williamson and the ABA championships they pulled down, the best you could hope for was a pat on the head. The Nets? Hey, they’re really building something, maybe. Good for them. That was the most they got when Kidd led them to consecutive NBA finals they never had a legitimate shot of winning. That was what they were aiming toward the year before the pandemic when a carefully constructed young team was coalescing and surprising and suggesting that maybe someday they, too, could compete on the edge of the Eastern Conference before losing in the postseason, which would be quite an accomplishment when contrasted against the worst you could hope for which was, inevitably, The Nets? HA! There was always a lot of HA!
Now, leaning forward from the pandemic viewing couch of 2021, I was rubbing my eyes and seeing megastars dressed as Nets and being Nets and taking the Nets to heights no Nets had elevated the Nets toward. They weren’t together often — you think the Mets are injury-plagued? — but when they were, it was 1986 up in here. The long slow climb that hinted at success if we got a couple of breaks was replaced with a rocket booster. Tom Brady had come to Brooklyn, in triplicate.
The only downside to the Big Three, besides each of them using a human-type body and being susceptible to sprains, strains and what have you, was you couldn’t love the Nets making strides and coming close. These Nets weren’t constructed to progress. These Nets were constructed to win in one fell swoop and dazzle you while they did it . Title-free for the past forty-five years, which encompassed every second of the franchise’s NBA membership, was long enough in the long view, but there was no long view to see here. These Nets had to get it done ASAP.
Which is why Saturday night’s Game Seven against Milwaukee was the most essential Game Seven of my life since Game Seven against the Cardinals in 2006. Much the way 2006 was our — the Mets’ — year to win the World Series (which we didn’t), 2021 was the year we — the Nets — had to go all the way. No law said they couldn’t do it in 2022. The Big Three would still be under contract, but next years do not come with warranties. It’s why 2007 still burns Metswise. I spent the winter after Called Strike Three convinced it’s OK, we’re gonna get ’em next year. Still waiting.
If you paid the slightest bit of attention to the Brooklyn Nets these past few weeks, you know The Big Three forged playoff forces only briefly. Round one was fine, with the Celtics properly disposed of in five games. Round two got off to a rollicking start, the Nets trampling the Bucks twice. But Harden’s hammy tightened up and then some. Irving’s ankle landed on the wrong foot (that of a very large and very imposing Buck). Durant was all alone out there. A supporting cast was visible but only intermittently effective. For a night it didn’t matter. For a night, during Game Five, it was spectacular. Kevin Durant was Jacob deGrom except Jacob deGrom playing all nine innings and all nine positions. Just as I’ve lately heard myself think that as great as Seaver was, I’ve never experienced anybody like deGrom, I’ve dared to ask Julius Erving to at least nudge over a bit in the front seat of my Netsian esteem. I’d never asked him to do that for Jason Kidd or anybody else since the ABA.
As we’ve seen when nobody but Jake scores for Jake, team sports are rarely executed wholly and successfully by one man. God knows Jake has tried. And Stephanie and I know from our TNT vigil last night that KD tried. Almost pulled it off, too. Problem is the Nets were taking on a very tough customer. Second rounds of playoffs only have tough customers. Seven-game series are brutal in the familiarity they accumulate. I came to know the Milwaukee Bucks more than I ever wanted to know them.
Toward the end, it came down to Kevin Durant’s “big-ass foot,” as the man himself referred to the shoe that barely touched the three-point line when the Nets were down by two as regulation wound down. Durant took the biggest shot of the Nets’ NBA life. Of course he made it. We thought it was a three. A smaller shoe, or perhaps one whose toes curled upward a tad would have added an extra point. Instead, it was a two. A clutch two, but still a two. Overtime beckoned.
The Nets failed to score. Durant took the collar. Joe Harris — a three-ball demon all winter, yet in June the possessor of the most nettlesome slump in Brooklyn since Gil Hodges inspired a priest to tell his congregation to go home, keep the Commandments and pray for their first baseman — stayed ice bleeping cold. Bruce Brown and Jeff Green went pale in the stat column. Blake Griffin fouled out. James Harden’s lone good hamstring could carry only so much load.
The Bucks won in OT. The Nets’ season was over before I was ready to accept conclusion as a conclusion. I was in October of 2006 again. The Mets were supposed to keep it going, straight to Detroit and the franchise’s third world championship. I was in October of 1999 again, the Mets in Atlanta, pushing a miracle run to an eleventh inning of a 10-9 score in which we had only the 9 and couldn’t get one more run or one more inning or one more game. That’s how much this hurt. Seventh-game hurt like ’06. Overtime hurt, like ’99. Wanting it to keep going in ’21. Wanting to wake up thinking about the Nets and go to sleep thinking about the Nets the way I’ve been as this spring blends into this summer.
When I’m not thinking about the Mets, that is.
I’d say I went to sleep thinking about the Nets last night, except I couldn’t sleep. I sat shiva for my basketball team, for the half-century they’ve resided in the sloped room of my mind, how, at the risk of sounding self-pitying, nobody understands what they mean to me except me. The NBA ethos generally doesn’t allow for “good try, let’s reflect on what we’ve done” rumination. The Nets were supposed to win. The Nets intelligentsia knew that. Those who were gunning for the superteam knew that. If you wanted to mourn, do it yourself after your wife goes to bed.
Which is what I did until I nodded off at about 5:30 this morning. I was glad the Islanders won their almost incidental Game Four and tied their series at two. It, too, was thrilling, especially at the end, but I had to squeeze them in during TNT commercial breaks. The breathtaking non-goalie save that sealed their victory had the good graces to take place during a Nets-Bucks timeout. I wanted to watch the old Barn (the Coliseum, not the Dairy) shake for a few extra seconds and take in the YES! YES! et al chant that my neighbors four miles up the road have perfected, but as I said to Stephanie, “no time to soak this in.” Click went the remote once more.
When I woke up today, the door to the sloped room was still ajar. I rarely show it to company. Maybe we’ll do it again next year.