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The team that brought Long Island its first championship returns to its roots

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Julius Erving - Retired Numbers

UNIONDALE, N.Y. — Hello Long Island!

The Nets found themselves in a place they once called home in a preseason loss against the Philadelphia 76ers on Wednesday. It was a tough night on the court, but a special night for the franchise’s roots... a place that was home during some of the most glorious days in franchise history.

That’s right, ON Long Island, as the “New York Nets”.

The players claim they weren’t aware that Kenny Atkinson was from Long Island, and seemed barely aware that this is where the team started.

“It’s awesome being here,” Rondae Hollis-Jefferson told NetsDaily. “It’s amazing to get a feel for the culture and the history of the organization. Some people haven’t been in this building in a long time, so to watch basketball being played by us is historic.”

In response to Atkinson coming from Northport, Hollis-Jefferson laughed and said, “I didn’t know, but I’m sure he’ll say something before the game.”

More of the young guys weighed in.

“This is where Nets basketball started. It’s cool, man. It’s where it took off, so coming back to the hometown really means a lot,” Jarrett Allen told NetsDaily.

“I’ve never been over here before, so it’ll be interesting to play in here. It’s a beautiful arena and it’s cool to see where the Nets started,” Caris LeVert told NetsDaily.

It is a history that has mostly been lost. Now, with the Long Island Nets and a Long Island coach, it may be revived.

The Nets won their only two championships as a franchise. in the ABA, behind one of the ABA/NBA's greatest of all time, Julius "Dr. J" Erving. Dr. J is from Roosevelt, about five minutes from The Coliseum.

Nets history isn’t spoken about much. After all, the Nets before Brooklyn seem to be lost in the wind, with YES Network serving as one of the few things that still bridge the New Jersey Nets and Brooklyn Nets.

Now, with the Nets putting a G-League team in Long Island and the hiring of Atkinson, the Nets are re-connecting back to the island. Atkinson happily recounts some of his best memories here at the Coliseum ... 35 years ago when he was a high schooler.

“We won the Newsday Classic and the Newsday Classic back then was the city versus Long Island,” Atkinson said. “Long Island had never beaten the city. Long Island had really good teams – for a kid from Long Island, city basketball was the best.”

The Island connection started in the 1968-1969 season, the franchise's second season in the ABA. The Nets played at the Long Island Arena, better known as the Commack Arena, which seated only 4,000 people. When teams arrived at Commack, the court was filled with holes and condensation from a hockey game that took place the night before. That didn’t last long.

From 1969-1972, the New York Nets played at the Island Garden Arena in Hempstead, an 8,500-seat arena that's now the hotspot for AAU basketball on the Island.

"It was a trip," Lavern Tart shooting guard for the Nets from 1968 to 1972, told the New York Times. "There were two sections of the arena that leaked whenever it rained or snowed, and it dripped onto the court. We knew where those spots were, but the teams coming in had no idea. I remember one night Darrel Carrier of the Kentucky Colonels was guarding me, so I dribbled and backed him into one of the spots. Then I made a quick move and he went down. That's when home-court advantage really meant something."

In 1969, the Nets grossed about $45,000 for the team's 42-game home schedule, Mike Manzer, the former head of sales and promotions for the Nets, told the Times. All the seats in the arena were great, but the best way for the Nets to attract fans was by promoting free giveaways, most notably -- the red, white and blue ABA ball.

Playing basketball and growing up on Long Island, the (renovated) Island Garden was a Mecca. For the average Long Island baller, it was a place that created many memories.

Like Commack Arena, the Island Garden was only a temporary home for the Nets. They played there for three seasons but when they were in the midst of a playoff run in 1971, they were unable to play any home playoff games at home. Other events already booked! After three seasons at the I.G., the Nets moved five minutes away to their brand new arena in Uniondale that fit 17,800, better known as the Nassau Coliseum, which they shared with the New York Islanders.

The Nets won two ABA Championships in the Coliseum with Hall of Famer Julius Erving. Dr. J led the franchise to its first ever title in the 1973-1974 season. Two seasons later, the Nets won another, the last one before the ABA-NBA merger. It should be noted that the Nets won championships for Long Island before the Islanders, who did win four titles starting in 1980.

Following that season, the Nets joined the NBA as part of the merger. The Knicks required them to pay a $4.8 million “indemnity” —compensation for "invading" the New York area. Roy Boe, the team owner, had to sell Dr. J to pay off the Knicks. Without Erving, the Nets played one more (miserable) year at the Coliseum and then departed to New Jersey in 1977.

The rest is unspoken history.

For nearly 40 years, the arena slowly fell into disrepair. There was an occasional preseason game held in Uniondale, but there was no thought of bringing professional basketball back to Long Island

The Coliseum shut down in 2015 and the Islanders moved in with the Nets in Brooklyn...

The ties to Long Island had just begun. On October 30, 2015, Mikhail Prokhorov agreed to take control of the revamped Nassau Coliseum from Bruce Ratner, his partner in both the Nets and Barclays Center. Not long after, the Nets announced their D-League team the Long Island Nets would begin playing the renovated coliseum in 2017.

"We are proud to bring the Nets brand back to Long Island, and to establish synergy between the team's storied roots at Nassau Coliseum and its contemporary history in Brooklyn," said Brett Yormark, CEO of Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment, which is parent company of the Nets, Barclays Center and Nassau Coliseum (as well as the L.I. Nets).

He also noted the historic connections between the Long Island Nets logo and the old New York Nets signage. The logo features the “Nets” wordmark in red script, reminiscent of the Nets’ logo used from 1968-78. The wordmark appears against a black and white basketball with a “Long Island, New York” mark in a circular shape that mirrors the secondary logo of the Brooklyn Nets. It’s no accident.

Then, Sean Marks further exploited the Long Island connection, hiring Atkinson as head coach and anchor to developing young talent. Atkinson grew up less than a half hour away from the Coliseum.

The Nets have long coveted the Long Island market, but less than 10 percent of Brooklyn Nets fanbase comes from Nassau and Suffolk. This is Knick territory. Afer the Isles move to Barclays, executives hoped the connection with Islanders fans would change that. The ultimate goal was to make Nets fans Islanders fans and Islanders fans Nets fans. It has not worked out.

The Long Island Nets are the next step in the team’s move to attract fans out east: create a connection between Long Island, the Coliseum and the Nets. As the G-League becomes more of a minor league, the hope is that Long Island fans will follow their favorites into Brooklyn. Build loyalty. The Long Island management is pushing hard to bring kids, boys and girls, into Nassau.

This week’s game is also part of that effort to connect. Give the basketball fans of Long Island a choice between a team that has planted a “farm team” in the renovated “Barn,” and the Knicks, who have little connection to Long Island but were the only New York team.

From Long Island to New Jersey and now in Brooklyn. Nearly 50 years later, this game serves as a nice reminder that the Nets do have an intriguing history — the first professional sports team on the Island, the first one to win a championship, the first one to produce a superstar in Julius Erving. Now, to reconnect.