Brooklyn Nets Turn Up The Heat: A History, Part 2
By Wyatt Erchak
After joining the NBA in 1976, the New York Nets lost their star player, Julius “Dr. J” Erving, to heavy-handed association politics (some would say extortion). In their first season in the new organization, the team finished with the worst record in the league after their other big player, Nate Archibald, was injured. Fortunately, new talent, particularly in the form of European star Dražen Petrović, would help the Nets reclaim some of their former glory.
For the time being, however, thinking all was lost and perhaps a change of locale would produce a fresh start, the team’s ownership decided to return the franchise to New Jersey. Lo and behold, a certain other team took issue with this. The Knicks, claiming “territorial rights” to New Jersey, threatened to block the move.
This time, though, the Nets fought back and sued the Knicks. The case was settled out of court after the state of New Jersey as well as the NBA intervened; in a twisted repeat of recent events, the Nets were forced to pay the Knicks $4 million to move. In a stark moment, it became clear that one franchise was out to play basketball, while the other cared more about money.
The renamed team, the New Jersey Nets, had yet to settle down while they awaited completion of the Meadowlands Complex (now called the Izod Center) in East Rutherford, New Jersey, and played their first four seasons post-move at Rutgers. Those years were mediocre, with no playoff appearances and no clear direction. When they finally settled at the Meadowlands in 1981, they began to feel hopeful.
Beginning that year, the next four seasons saw the Nets posting strong numbers and only being temporarily set back by coaching changes near the end of the 1982-83 season, when they lost to their rivals, the New York Knicks, in the first playoff round. The following year, the Nets won a playoff series against the Milwaukee Bucks, but failed to clinch the Eastern Conference title.
After making the playoffs again in the 1984-85 season, the trend started to reverse and injuries combined with players’ issues (Michael Richardson’s drug use comes to mind) kept them from reaching the playoffs until the next decade. While never the worst team in the league during the 1980s, except at the end of the 1989-1990 season, the Nets could only be called average at best and pitiful at worst; the fans knew that the team could do better.
The new decade of the 1990s was filled with optimism: the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union’s empire crumbled apart, Francis Fukuyama proclaimed “the end of history,” and the New Jersey Nets acquired Dražen Petrović. Petrović, or “Petro,” a proud Croatian and Yugoslav basketball star, was widely considered to be one of the greatest European players of all time.
He would show why upon arriving at the Nets from the Portland Trail Blazers, a team that frustrated him due to how little they used him on the court. As soon as he joined the team, in the 1991-92 season, the Nets reached the playoffs and finished sixth in the Eastern Conference. The following year saw nothing but improvement as they again made the playoffs. The success would be short-lived, however, and a star clearly destined for greatness would literally come crashing down.
On June 7, 1993, Petrović, recently named to the All-NBA 3rd Team, was killed in a car crash in Germany. He was immortalized by the retired number three jersey hanging above the court at Barclays Center and by his Basketball Hall of Fame induction in 2002, as well as the numerous honors and memorials in Croatia and around the world. The Nets had again lost their star player, this time to an act of God. Fortunately, the tragedy did not prevent the Nets from making the playoffs again in the 1993-94 season (in which they lost to the Knicks), and two of their other big players, Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson, made their only All-Star appearances.
The rest of the 1990s was largely a time of disillusionment and struggle. Beginning with coaching changes in 1994, and continuing with middling season records the next two years, the Nets suffered from a bad image, and it could be said, a sort of curse. Knowing this, ownership attempted to re-brand the franchise, making two attempts to do so.
The first, and stupidest, was to consider changing the name of the team to the New Jersey Swamp Dragons, which thankfully did not succeed. The second was a sensible and much-needed rejuvenation of the Nets franchise in 1997, complete with coaching, playing style, and player changes, as well as a logo redesign creating the recognizable “shield” that is still in use today, albeit with stylistic and aesthetic differences. The next phase in Nets history would see them partially reclaim their championship legacy, and move forward towards an eventual return to New York State.