The New Jersey Nets’ 100-68 rout of the Bulls on November 27 at the Continental Airlines Arena officially ended at 9:20 p.m., but the game was really over before it started. You could tell just by the look of the young and restless Nets. Moments before the opening tip-off, Charles Oakley took his spot on the floor next to New Jersey’s rangy Kenyon Martin. The Bulls’ graying forward looked like Martin’s father.
The Nets aren’t just winning this year, they’re winning with style, and they’re playing with a confidence that the team hasn’t shown since Dr. J dribbled a red, white, and blue basketball for them. With a 10-5 record going into Saturday’s game against the Celtics, the first-place Nets are athletic, but they’re disciplined on the court. They’re everything that recent Nets teams weren’t. In fact, they’re everything even the Knicks usually aren’t.
Except for one thing: Few people outside the NBA fraternity—even the fans and metropolitan-area press—are noticing the Nets.
“It feels good this year. We’re just winning games,” says guard Lucious Harris, whose five-year tenure in New Jersey is the second longest on the team. “I would say that we’re a lot closer than last year’s team. Everybody jokes around together, and everyone’s really happy.”
It’s easy to see why. Four minutes into the game against the Bulls, first-year Nets point guard Jason Kidd pushes the ball up the court on a three-on-one break. Kidd attacks the hoop, freezing the defender, before threading a pass to Kerry Kittles, who finds Keith Van Horn for an easy layup. A New Jersey point guard passing up an easy chance to score on a fast break? Former Net Stephon Marbury, the pride of Coney Island, was great at finishing fast-break opportunities, but usually with the ball in his own hands.
While the Nets themselves won’t directly discuss—or cuss—Marbury, their preference of point guards is clear. “We don’t have any selfish players, and that makes a big difference,” says Harris.
“Stephon Marbury was not a natural point guard,” an Eastern Conference scout explains to the Voice. “He was a great offensive talent who was trying to play point. Jason is one of the great assist men in the league.”
Kidd has brought out the best in a number of his teammates. When center Todd MacCulloch, the lumbering Canadian who is averaging career highs in points and rebounds, is asked about his own increased productivity, he simply points to Kidd’s locker and says, “He’s standing right there.”
MacCulloch scored 18 points and grabbed 13 rebounds in the victory over the Bulls. He also runs the floor on fast breaks and gets the ball to open shooters when he is trapped inside.
Somewhere, Yinka Dare weeps.
One of the most unusual things about the Nets’ victory over Chicago was that it surprised no one. For the first time in years, the Nets expect to win. MacCulloch, who came to the Nets from the conference champion Philadelphia 76ers, says the feeling in the Nets’ locker room is “pretty similar” to the feeling of the Sixers.
“We expect to win games,” MacCulloch says.”We expect to win at home foremost, but there’s an attitude here that we should win no matter where we are.”
But if the Nets are a legitimate contender, and right now it appears that they may be, someone forgot to tell the rest of New Jersey.
The Nets entered the game against the Bulls in first place and still drew only 5200 fans, the third time this season their attendance has fallen short of 6000. There were seven other NBA games that night, two of them pairing teams that didn’t equal the Nets’ wins this year combined. None of those games drew under 10,000 fans.
The Bulls’ NBA-worst record (1-14 going into their game against the Nets) doesn’t help fill seats, and weeknight games don’t exactly pull in fans. But that doesn’t explain why, on Tuesday, November 13, 11,300 fans packed Denver’s Pepsi Arena to watch the Nuggets (6-8 this season) host the boring Bulls.
In New Jersey, meanwhile, most of the sections in the arena’s upper deck held fewer than 10 fans during the Nets’ game against Chicago; many were empty. A lower section was occupied by only two people; one was wearing a Bulls jersey.
About 10 rows behind New Jersey’s bench sat Eugene and Maxine Lee, an elderly couple from Parsippany who are as close to die-hard Nets fans as they come—they’ve had season tickets for the past 15 years.
“It’s really a shame,” says Eugene, clad in a gray Nets sweatshirt. “They’re missing a good show here.”
The most telling fact is that despite having one of the best point guards in the league, the Nets can’t even outdraw a humdrum college game. Two nights after the Nets’ thrashing of the Bulls at the Continental Airlines Arena, Seton Hall beat Monmouth, 72-51, on the same court. That game outdrew the Nets-Bulls by nearly 800 fans.