Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Top 5 Reasons You Can’t Blame Bruce Ratner for Moving the New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn

March 24, 2004: Real estate developer Bruce Ratner buys the NBA's New Jersey Nets, and announces his intention to move them from the Meadowlands Sports Complex in East Rutherford, New Jersey to a new arena in Brooklyn.

The Nets had just won their 1st and 2nd NBA Eastern Conference Championships in 2002 and 2003, and were contenders to do so again in 2004. For the 1st time since they joined the NBA from the American Basketball Association in 1976, they had legitimate aspirations for the NBA Championship. For the 1st time, they had fans coming to the Brendan Byrne Arena. For the 1st time, they were, beyond much doubt, the best basketball team in the New York Tri-State Area. (The New York Knicks had been bad before, but this was the 1st time the Nets were good and the Knicks were bad.)

And, just as things had never been better for NBA fans in New Jersey, their team was being taken away from them.

To make matters worse, the process of moving them moved very slowly. It would be 2012 before the Barclays Center finally opened. By that time, Ratner had sold the team, and was now just operating the arena, which was what he had really wanted all along.

The Nets were a lame-duck team in New Jersey for 8 years. That was twice as long as for baseball's Montreal Expos (2000 to 2004). They had even moved from the Meadowlands to the Prudential Center in downtown Newark in 2010, while waiting for the Barclays Center to open. I had hoped that moving to Newark, a good basketball city, would bring crowds big enough that Nets ownership would say, "Hey, we can make lots of money by staying here, so let's stay here."

They didn't stay. And have they made lots of money by moving to Brooklyn? Not really. Today, finally, the Brooklyn Nets look like NBA title contenders, and they're still not making money, because the COVID-19 restrictions are limiting crowd size.

And suppose the Nets do somehow manage to win an NBA Championship here in the early 2020s. Would that make them the most popular team in the City? Or in the Tri-State Area? Hell, no. I honestly believe that a title for the Knicks would mean more to New Yorkers than for any other team.

I don't remember the Knicks' titles of 1970 and 1973, but I've seen 7 titles won by the Yankees, 4 each by the Giants and the Islanders, 3 by the Devils, and 1 each by the Mets and the Rangers. A new Knicks title would exceed the joy for any of those, and for a hypothetical title won by the Nets or the Jets.

A title for the Brooklyn Nets wouldn't mean as much to New Yorkers, even in Brooklyn, than a title for the Knicks would. If they had won one in New Jersey, it wouldn't have meant as much as those 3 Stanley Cups won by the Devils did.

Switching colors from red, white and blue to black and white makes the Brooklyn Nets look like an expansion team. But the hanging of the banners from the team's Long Island and New Jersey years, as few as they are, makes it look like they never really came to New Jersey: Like the NHL's New York Islanders did (for a while), it seems as though they stayed at the Nassau Coliseum for all those years, and then went directly to the Barclays Center.
Like it never even happened.

So the Nets' move to Brooklyn doesn't mean that much for New York City, or even for Brooklyn. The insult to New Jersey means more than a title in New Jersey would have meant.

It was a waste of time, money and effort. So was it worth it?

Top 5 Reasons You Can’t Blame Bruce Ratner for Moving the New Jersey Nets to Brooklyn

5. The Meadowlands. Building a sports complex in East Rutherford, Bergen County, just off the New Jersey Turnpike, close to the Lincoln Tunnel and to New York City, seemed like a great idea in the 1970s. But after Giants Stadium and the Meadowlands Racetrack opened in 1976, the drawbacks kicked in.

There was plenty of parking, but it was poorly managed. Getting in and out took forever. Taking public transportation was no good: You couldn't do it from most of New Jersey, as the Meadowlands Rail Line didn't open until 2009 (in time for the football teams to move next-door to what's now MetLife Stadium), and the buses from New York's Port Authority Bus Terminal got stuck in traffic on Routes 495 and 3.

And the smell wasn't too good, even before all that exhaust settled over the area, and combined with the natural swamp air to form what Jerry Seinfeld might have called "some sort of mutant funk."

The arena that opened in 1981 -- known as the Brendan Byrne Arena until 1996, then the Continental Airlines Arena until 2007, and finally the Izod Center until the building's official closing in 2015 -- didn't improve things.
One level of concourse for two levels of seats simply doesn't work if there's more than 12,000 people in the building. Then again, until the Nets got good in the 2001-02 season, that was rarely a problem for them. It wasn't a problem all that often after that, either.

The arena was drafty, especially in the upper deck. The sight lines weren't great: The older Madison Square Garden and Nassau Coliseum both had better ones. The sound didn't carry well, even though the sound system was always too loud -- perhaps to cover up for the fact that crowds generally weren't big, unless the Knicks, the Philadelphia 76ers until Julius Erving's retirement in 1987, the Boston Celtics, the Los Angeles Lakers, and the Chicago Bulls once Michael Jordan started winning titles for them in 1991, were in.

The Nets and the Devils both had to get out of that arena. Both did. But only the Devils really benefited. More on that in a moment.

4. The Giants and Jets. While the Nets were the first team to have "New Jersey" as part of their name -- as the ABA's New Jersey Americans in 1967-68, before moving to Long Island, and then returning in 1977 as they played at Rutgers while waiting for the Meadowlands Arena to be built -- the New York football teams set the standard for insulting New Jersey.

The Giants moved to the Meadowlands Sports Complex in 1976, the Jets in 1984. In 1986, the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority, owner of the Complex, had a marker identifying Giants Stadium as being in New Jersey placed at midfield. But it was removed in 1997. In 2000, the Giants switched back to their old "ny" helmet logo. Both Big Blue and Gang Green were ashamed of Jersey before most New Jerseyans ever learned who Bruce Ratner was.

3. The New Jersey Devils. If the Nets had simply waited for the Devils to open their new arena, the Prudential Center in downtown Newark, on October 25, 2007, they would have been in the same situation that the Jets: Tenants, and thus second-class citizens. It was why the Jets wanted out of Shea Stadium (owned by New York City, with dates controlled by the Mets), and then demanded half-ownership of MetLife Stadium: Control of their own home destiny.
The Prudential Center

This came true in the 2010-11 and 2011-12 seasons, when the Nets were tenants of the Devils at the Prudential. The team that owns the arena controls the scheduling. There are 10 metro areas have arenas that currently host both an NBA team and an NHL team: New York (Madison Square Garden), Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Los Angeles, Toronto and Washington. In the cases of New York, Boston, Toronto and Washington, the same people own both teams, so there's some flexibility.

But the Nets, so long a "little brother" franchise to the Knicks, and in a way to the Devils as well, wanted an arena where they would have first choice. That wasn't going to be the Meadowlands, and it wasn't going to be any new arena the Devils would build, either. (In addition to the Prudential Center, a new one at the Meadowlands Complex was considered, as was one next to the Hoboken Terminal.) Regardless of the Devils' success, Nets management didn't want somebody else deciding when they could schedule home games.

2. Brooklyn. Beyond once being the home of baseball's Dodgers, the Borough has a great basketball tradition. Carl Braun, Bobby Wanzer, Red Holzman (yes, he was a great player, too), Lenny Wilkens, Connie Hawkins, Larry Brown, Billy Cunningham, Roger Brown, and Bernard King. And, while he grew up in North Carolina, Michael Jordan was born in Brooklyn. All of these men have made the Basketball Hall of Fame.

And that doesn't include other stars like Sonny Hertzberg, Ray Lumpp, Max Zaslofsky, Fuzzy Levane, Jack McMahon, Rudy LaRusso, Connie Dierking, Kevin Loughery, Doug Moe, Mike Dunleavy Sr., Phil "the Thrill" Sellers, Bernard's brother Albert King, Sam Perkins, Lorenzo Charles, Dwayne "the Pearl" Washington, Mark Jackson, Vinnie "the Microwave" Johnson, John Salley, Stephon Marbury, Carmelo Anthony, Quincy Douby and Jamaal Tinsley.

So once it was established that the Nets had to get out of the Meadowlands, staying in the Tri-State Area may have seemed like a good idea. The possibility of moving to Brooklyn was appealing. It was never going to be the case that a successful Nets team could take the entire City, let alone the entire Tri-State Area, away from the Knicks. But they could become the most popular team in Brooklyn, population then about 2.5 million -- and, by extension, also Staten Island, Queens and Long Island, for a combined population of about 8 million.
The Barclays Center

But what about New Jersey? Didn't all those years of support from the Garden State -- or, at least, the part of it that titled toward New York instead of Philadelphia -- mean anything?

No:

1. New Jersey Didn’t Care. During the Winter months, New Jerseyans turned their attention to the Devils. If they wanted to watch basketball, they could watch their high school or college teams. If they wanted to watch the NBA, they could watch on television, usually either the Los Angeles Lakers or whatever team LeBron James happened to be playing for that season. (This season marks the 3rd straight in which that's one team, not two.)

VERDICT: Not Guilty. The old line that Brooklynites had for the Dodgers, "They may be bums, but they're our bums," never really applied in New Jersey. Anyone shouting "Please don't leave us" never made themselves heard over the silence of people who just didn't care.

Ratner buying the Nets may have been dumb. Ratner betting on the Nets being a success in Brooklyn may have been dumb. Ratner no longer owning the Nets, now that they may have more talent than at any time in their 54-season history, may be dumb. But moving them? It was insulting for some of us, but you can hardly blame him for doing it.

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