Thursday, February 16, 2012
Top 10 Greatest New York & New Jersey Nets
Last night, while the whole world drunk more of the Jeremy Lin Kool-Aid, the Nets lost 105-100. To the Memphis Grizzlies. At home.
They did this in spite of playing Whitney Houston’s rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” before the game. They did this in place of the Prudential Center hosting a public memorial for Whitney, as the Houston family wants a private funeral.
As the Nets prepare to move to Brooklyn in the fall, bringing an end to their New Jersey sojourn after 35 years (1977-2012), here are the top 10 players in the franchise’s history thus far, also including their Long Island days as the New York Nets.
Honorable Mention: Drazen Petrovic, Number 3, guard, 1990-93. What could have been. He might have been the best shooter in the world at the time. Between the Nets and his earlier tenure with the Portland Trial Blazers, he was 4th all-time in NBA 3-point shooting percentage. He had talent. He had desire. He had guts. He had intelligence. He had the temperament to survive sports stardom in the New York Tri-State Area – something Jeremy Lin still has to prove that he has. But Petro was killed in a car crash after the 1993 season. That crash may have altered the history of the franchise. Since he was only a Net for 3 non-title seasons, I can’t include him in the Top 10. But his number has been retired.
Honorable Mention: Rick Barry, Number 24, forward, 1970-72. Just 2 seasons with the Nets, so he can’t be counted in the Top 10. He came from Roselle Park, and may be the best basketball player the State of New Jersey has ever produced. (Don’t tell me Shaquille O’Neal was born in Newark: He became a basketball player in San Antonio, Texas. As he said of his own father on one of his rap albums, “Biological don’t matter.”) He led the ABA in scoring and free-throw percentage in both of his ABA seasons, and helped the Nets reach the 1972 Finals, before going back to the Golden State Warriors. He’s a member of the Hall of Fame, and was named to the NBA’s 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players – but he and the Nets are only small parts of each others’ stories.
Honorable Mention: Kenyon Martin, Number 6, forward, 2000-04. I can’t quite put him in the Top 10 due to his injuries, but when he was healthy, he was a beast. He paired with Jason Kidd to power the Nets into 2 NBA Finals, but injuries and the greed of Bruce Ratner led to his being traded in 2004. He now plays for the Los Angeles Clippers.
10. Brian Taylor, Number 14, guard, 1972-76. A member of a fantastic athletic family (his older brother Bruce played cornerback for 8 years for the San Francisco 49ers), he helped Perth Amboy become to Middlesex County, New Jersey high school ball what UCLA then was to the college ranks and the Boston Celtics were to the NBA. And he wasn’t just a kid whose only ticket to college was sports: He graduated from Princeton University.
He wasn’t a Net for long, but he played on both ABA title teams and in 2 ABA All-Star Games. He was ABA Rookie of the Year in 1973, and remained in the NBA until 1982, mostly with the San Diego Clippers. He became a high school teacher and administrator, and now builds charter schools.
9. Mike Gminski, Number 42, center, 1980-88. From Monroe, Fairfield County, Connecticut, so more or less a local guy, he got Duke into the 1978 National Championship Game, and gave the Nets 8 years of gritty inside play. Had a good outside shot, too. The G-Man might have been better served on a better team, but that the Nets weren’t better in the Eighties was hardly his fault.
8. Bill Melchionni, Number 25, guard, 1969-76. He seemed destined for Philadelphia basketball stardom, having been born in the city and playing at Bishop Eustace High School across the river in Pennsauken, New Jersey, and just outside the city at Villanova University, before being a rookie reserve on the 1967 NBA Champion 76ers. The Nets offered him more money, and he was also a member of the Dr. J-led Nets champions of ’74 and ’76. He was 3rd on the ABA’s all-time assists list. His brother Gary and nephew Lee both starred for Duke. His number has been retired by the Nets.
7. Richard Jefferson, Number 24, forward, 2001-08. A very exciting young player, he was the 3rd member of the Big Three with Kidd and Martin. Like Dr. J and Super John, he had unbelievable moves. And, unlike Kidd, he wanted to stay with the Nets. He was actually looking forward to the move to Brooklyn. Instead, Ratner had him traded to the Milwaukee Bucks for Yi Jianlian and Bobby Simmons – not the worst trade in Net history, but close. He now plays for the San Antonio Spurs.
6. John Williamson, Number 23, guard, 1973-80 (except for 1977-78 with the Indiana Pacers). Here’s a guy who was really hurt by the national media’s ignorance of pro basketball in the Seventies. Had he come along in the ESPN era, “Super John” would have been a sensation. He helped the Nets win their 2 ABA Championships, almost singlehandedly winning the ’76 title by scoring 16 points in the 4th quarter of the clinching Game 6, to overcome a 22-point deficit against the Denver Nuggets. Unfortunately, he developed diabetes, which led to kidney failure and his death in 1996, age 45. His Number has been retired by the Nets.
5. Derrick Coleman, Number 44, forward, 1990-95. He and future Miami Heat star Rony Seikaly got Syracuse to within a basket of the National Championship in 1987, and the sky seemed the limit. He was NBA Rookie of the Year, and up to that 1992-93 season he seemed like he was going to do for the Nets what Jason Kidd later did, and more.
But then that cunt John Starks clotheslined Kenny Anderson (in one of the post-Erving, pre-Kidd Nets’ rare national TV appearances), causing Kenny to crash to the floor and break his wrist. The Nets were never the same: Kenny became a moody journeyman, and Petro was killed; in between, Coleman went from being a marketable star to being a whiny jerk. By January 1995, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the symbol of NBA primadonnaism. After retirement, Coleman became a broadcaster, but has since filed for bankruptcy. As New Jersey’s own Connie Francis would say, “Who’s sorry now?”
4. Vince Carter, Number 15, guard, 2004-09. Before there was Linsanity, there was Vinsanity. Carter remains the greatest player the Toronto Raptors have ever had, but while he reached 3 All-Star Games with the Nets, the Meadowlands club never really got to see his best. He did manage to pick the team up a bit after Kidd moped his way out of Jersey, but ultimately his NBA career has been a disappointment – though he provided enough excitement to not be an out-and-out failure. He’s now reunited with Kidd on the Dallas Mavericks, although he was with the Phoenix Suns last season, so he doesn’t have a ring.
3. Buck Williams, Number 52, forward, 1981-89. He is the Nets’ all-time leader in games played, minutes played, field goals made and attempted, free throws made and attempted, offensive and defensive rebounds, and points. He is 3rd all-time in the NBA in offensive rebounds. But he never won a title, and only reached the NBA Finals after leaving the Nets (in 1990 and ’92 with the Portland Trail Blazers). His Number 52 has been retired by the Nets, but he is not yet in the Hall of Fame. He should be: He was a terrific player and a class act.
2. Jason Kidd, Number 5, guard, 2001-08. Few athletes have ever made as much difference to a team as Kidd did when he arrived in a trade with the Phoenix Suns for clubhouse cancer Stephon Marbury in 2001. Almost instantly, the Nets went from being one of the biggest joke franchises in Western Hemisphere sports to being a genuine NBA title contender. First season: Eastern Conference Champions, although swept by the Shaquille O'Neal/Kobe Bryant Los Angeles Lakers in the NBA Finals. Second season: Same, and actually won 2 Finals games against the David Robinson/Tim Duncan San Antonio Spurs. Third season: A 3rd straight Atlantic Division Championship. Fourth season…
Well, that’s when Bruce Ratner bought the team, and their fate was sealed. He instantly began the process of moving the Nets to Brooklyn, and the Nets became a lame-duck team, and have spent more seasons as such (7, 2005-12) than did the Montreal Expos (4, 2000-04). Despite another Division title in 2006, it was pretty much all over. Ratner broke up the team, and drove the fans away. The last Nets game I’ve attended had 12,000 people at the Meadowlands Arena – and this was when the Spurs were in town, as defending champions, with Eva Longoria still married to the Spurs’ Tony Parker, and Nets part-owner Jay-Z and his wife Beyonce also in the front row. You’d think people would at least want to see them… Pretty soon, Kidd didn’t want to be there, either, and left under a cloud.
1. Julius Erving, Number 32, forward, 1973-76. Only 3 seasons, but 2 of them were ABA Championship seasons. Yes, he was spectacular, but he also brought results. What he did with the Philadelphia 76ers made his legend grow further.
But the facts that the Nets had to pay the NBA an entry fee, pay the Knicks a territorial indemnification free, sell Doctor J to pay those, go from being the best team in the ABA to being the worst in the NBA, spend 4 years in the inadequate Rutgers Athletic Center in Piscataway, and then go into a slightly improved exile in the Meadowlands, makes any thoughts of Doc in a Nets uniform bittersweet at best. Still, this member of the 50th Anniversary 50 Greatest Players and the Hall of Fame does have his Number 32 retired by the Nets, as well as his Number 6 retired by the 76ers.
UPDATE: On April 30, 2012, the day the Brooklyn Nets unveiled their new logo, ESPN put together a list of the 10 Greatest New Jersey Nets -- counting only their NBA/New Jersey years, 1977 to 2012. Here's their rankings, and where I had these players ranked (if at all):
10. Mike Gminski (9)
9. Otis Birdsong (Not Ranked)
8. Kenyon Martin (Honorable Mention)
7. Richard Jefferson (7)
6. John Williamson (6)
5. Drazen Petrovic (HM)
4. Derrick Coleman (5)
3. Vince Carter (4)
2. Buck Williams (3)
1. Jason Kidd (2)
ESPN (roughly) backed me up, except that I had Doctor J as Number 1 because I was counting the Lawn Giland years too, and they gave Petro more credit for his 3 Jersey seasons than I did.
The key difference is Birdsong. He was a Net 7 years, 1981-88, as a guard, wearing Number 10. But in only 4 of them did he start more than 45 games, in none of them did he average more than 33 minutes, and in only 1 did he average more than 20 points. He had his best years with the Kansas City Kings, before coming to the Meadowlands.