Nice Guys Finish Where?

The Nets are out to earn wins, not respect

"I predict that this year I will help myself and my teammates to the finals of the Eastern Conference playoffs," writes Jayson Williams in the December issue of Details. "The Nets are the team in New York people are gonna be talkin' about."

Read into it what you will, but next to Patrick Ewing's well-documented title proclamations of seasons past, Jayson's woof seems a tad weak. At least Patrick guaranteedchampionships; Jayson, what, "predicts" a conference final appearance and no more?

The '99 Nets are like a good read that out of nowhere makes it onto the bestseller list. Suddenly the word gets out, the hype is in, and a formerly acquired taste now belongs to everyone. It shouldn't alter satisfaction, but the frame of reference is greatly changed. In the Nets' case, they're no longer mere affectionate swamp rats from across the Hudson, but quite possibly, the better of two teams from the Greater New York area. Pumped by too many rave reviews, they approach the NBA's short-season sprint with dangerously high hopes.

"The Nets attained respectability last year," says Knicks TV analyst Walt Frazier. "And now, on paper, they're stronger than the Knicks. But you have to be careful. They're not that far removed from the days of Derrick Coleman. There's something about that franchise. It's bewitched."

Though not as bothered and bewildered as New Jersey's cross-river rivals, a team with perennially inflated dreams. The Knicks go trade the solid Oakman for a Marcus Can't-be, then go out and land Spree in a mad rush to buy a championship— curious moves, in that transplanting stars for cellar dwellers never seems to pan out. The Nets, meanwhile, stay basically with last year's comers, an unquestionably bright, energetic, and talented bunch, if hardly a lock to become overnight NBA finalists.

One popular notion, however flimsy, is that the Nets have character, while the Knicks have characters. Nets coach John Calipari fans these flames by repeating "Character is not negotiable here," a pet saying he insists isn't meant to slight the Knicks. "We're trying to change the culture," he explains, under the blinding white light of the Champion Center, the Nets' immaculate new practice facility. "People with character look in the mirror and ask how they can make things better. Others may look and blame— blame each other, blame the coach. There may be a time five years from now where we're right on the edge and can bring a guy in who's on the fence, and say, 'Look, we're gonna help you change your image,' but right now, we can't afford to do it."

Calipari's platitudinous motivation-speak— do coaches ever come up for air anymore?— ignores what is, basketball-wise, an attractive and well-rounded team. Precocious first-round picks Keith ("The Franchise"?) Van Horn ('97) and Kerry Kittles ('96) have in short order proven that there is life after Rex Walters ('93), Yinka Dare ('94), and Ed O'Bannon ('95). Besides sporting the best 'too in the league (the Eveready bunny on his left bicep), Chris Gatling offers a slippery power game to go with this ticky touch (second in field-goal percentage in '96 at .567). Sam Cassell will either shoot too much or shoot out the lights (he won a championship with Houston as a rookie in '94). Sneakily efficient swingman Kendall Gill can fly in or pull up, and newly acquired Jim McIlvaine provides a hammer at backup center.

Which leaves team spokesman/leader/ comic Jayson Williams, who, after eight years on the job, has at last got game, bucks, and fans aplenty. As far as character goes, Williams has apparently reinvented himself in a fashion after George Foreman. Long forgotten is the squabbly 'tude of his formative years and the late-night transgression under the tutelage of then-pal Coleman (a man who, before fleeing East Rutherford, left us with the classic, "Whoop-de-damn-do"). Now an affable wing-nut with an aptitude for news-bite riffs (including those still-fresh, fan-pleasing, anti-union sentiments during the lockout's 11th hour), Williams has even abandoned his habit of tweaking the Knix— sort of.

"I was always jealous of them," chuckles Williams, holding court at a shootaround prior to last week's preseason opener with the Knicks, "until, uh, about six years ago. I like it here a whole lot better now. But there still is a rivalry. I live in New York and I like to beat up on those guys if I can."

During warmups at the Garden that night, Williams is all over the place. The consummate schmoozer, he acknowledges every "Yo, Jayce!" stops to shake hands with a suit (who claims to have partied with him last year at a club on Route 3 in Jersey— "he was still buying us drinks at 4 a.m."), interrupts situps for a stand-up, bear hugs a surprised McIlvaine, greets refs, and keeps the Nets' floor drills in flow. Not surprisingly, he receives a roaring visitor's welcome during intros. The guy could unseat Giuliani.

To be generous, the game itself is uninspiring— a real snoozer that offers few clues as to what lies ahead for either team. Missing for the Nets are Kittles, Van Horn, and Rony Seikaly, all out with various ailments. Van Horn returns for the more exciting rematch in Jersey, but this time Williams and Cassel are limited in their duties thanks to minor wounds. This injury bug, one that hit hard in last year's playoff elimination to the Bulls, may be a storm warning.

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