A Season on the Brink


George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. “George Santayana was not a New Jersey Nets fan. In the minutes before Stephon Marbury’s first home game as a Net, the scene was actually more Yogi Berra— as in déjà vu all over again.

The sight was of a fresh-faced point guard straight out of Georgia Tech, perched in the center of a gaggle of reporters, and looking as much like a ball boy as the team’s spiritual leader. Can you say Kenny Anderson? We knew you could.

And if anyone else missed the connection— the connection between the Nets current dynasty-in-the-making and their last dynasty-in-the-
making— Stephon the Brave drove it home himself.

“Whenever Kenny Anderson was here, I’d come out,” he said, casually recalling his teenage treks from Coney Island to the swamps of Jersey. “Him and D.C.”

When Marbury trotted onto the Meadowlands hardwood amid lasers and fireworks, the fans gave him the kind of ovation formerly reserved for Dennis Hopson. What they saw when the lights went on and the smoke cleared was enough to make any Nets fan over the age of nine — all 156 of them— long for the days of Kenny and D.C. and Chris Morris. It was ugly, brutish, and like this whole Nets season, very, very long.

And it was infinitely better than it was a week ago.

At least John Calipari was gone. If the Nets had squeaked out, say, six of their first 20 games, it could have taken another year for Lewis Katz and Co. to realize what the players had long ago figured out: Calipari was clueless. Another loss or two and Cal would have been ready to dunk his head in a bucket of ice water, Pat Riley­style, while the players fought amongst themselves for the right to hold it there.

This team needed guidance and all master motivator Calipari could do was yell louder. And now that he was gone, the owners trotted out an info-vangelist to provide more useless verbiage. “We had Tony Robbins in here. Tony Robbins . . . Jim Jones,” chuckled Jayson Williams, at his veiled reference to the Nets’ ex-coach. Kool-Aid anyone?

“We didn’t have a strategy,” countered Marbury more pointedly. “We’d just come out and play. You can’t win like that in the NBA.”

As Johnny Cochrane might say, you can throw out the skunk, but you can’t throw out the stink, and Calipari’s on-court legacy lingers. The Nets never stray from their defensive scheme because they don’t have one. What they do have is four guys playing out of position— Williams, Keith Van Horn, Kerry Kittles, and Kendall Gill— each either too small or too slow to play man defense at their assigned spots.

A 15-minute defensive tutorial by Jordan— new assistant Eddie, not Michael— emphasizing fundamentals most guys learn in CYO (“showing on pick and rolls, bumping cutters,” according to Marbury) revved up the effort enough to steal a win from the mighty Dallas Mavericks.

On offense, Calipari was content to ride Sam Cassell, at his best a poor man’s Allen Iverson. Sure, 36 points and two assists from your point guard can steal you a few wins against the Clippers and the Raptors and maybe even squeak you into the playoffs. But, a good team can stop even Michael Jordan if he won’t give up the rock. And worse, this shoot-first strategy leaves everyone else just standing around like a potted ficus. That’s why the Nets are dead fucking last in the league in shooting percentage. As they say on the dry-erase board, “There is an ‘I’ in B-R-I-C-K.”

During those first lonely minutes in Nets silver, Marbury must have wished he was back at Lincoln High. The alley-oop? Oops. An open three? Clank! And the ball just trickles out of bounds. As the shot clock wore down, his teammates looked more shell-shocked than the cast of Saving Private Ryan. So Marbury resorted to Plan B, what Van Horn called “doing what Sam Cassell did for us when he was healthy.” Marbury held and held and held the dribble and then launched a looooong three, or drove to the hoop for a finger roll with the whole Dallas team draped over him like
Tommy Hilfiger’s fall collection. Still, winning ugly beats losing ugly.

But Marbury understands that the rest of this season is more than just extended garbage time. It’s a long-distance audition for the cursed franchise’s next designated savior. “In the future it’s going to be different,” he said with a faraway look in his eye. “Next year hopefully we’ll get a guy like Phil Jackson. I’m his biggest fan.” Despite the lip service to the contrary, the NBA is a coach’s league. Look at Pat Riley. Look at Chuck Daly. Hell, look at P.J. Carlesimo. And there’s no clipboard jockey with more juice right now than Jackson, who is currently between teams.

This Nets squad has enough talent to entice the Zen Master. Van Horn and Kittles have more game than they’ve showed this year (although Calipari’s most enduring legacy may be drafting Kittles ahead of Kobe Bryant). Coaching Williams, who’s two parts Charles Oakley and one part Shecky Greene, has got to be a more tempting prospect than a reunion with Dennis Rodman. And at a time when his classmates are prepping for graduation, Marbury is arguably the best player at the NBA’s most important position. He’s the real deal.

But there’s the larger question of karma. There was a time when it seemed like Kenny Anderson was the real deal, too. Six years ago, the Nets had a coach, they had a point guard, and a few guys with game. But a broken wrist, a car accident, and Chuck Daly’s timely exit squashed that glimmer of hope as surely as a dyslexic can spell Micheal Ray Richardson. It was the Curse of Dr. J.

“We got buzzard luck,” says Williams
presciently. “We can’t kill nothin’ and nothin’ won’t die.”

But the Nets aren’t the Red Sox. They can make amends for their fateful transgression, and let Phil start with a clean slate. But if the team’s new owners want to really turn this franchise around, it’s going to take more than V-necked jerseys and a partnership with George Steinbrenner. An exorcism is in order. Repeat after me, Lewis Katz: Interim Coach Julius Erving.