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‘It’s really the house that Julius Erving built.’ Long Island Nets hope to build on Coliseum legacy

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Nassau Coliseum, home of the Long Island Nets, lit up for their home opener Monday.
Chris Milholen

Long Island holds a special place in the heart of basketball. It all really began in 1973. The Nets had been playing in Long Island for five years and in their new digs at Nassau Coliseum for two. Like many ABA teams, the Virginia Squires faced financial struggles and so they traded Julius Erving, the league’s superstar, to New York.

It was a brilliant move. Not only did New York get a signature player, a game-changing player ... in many ways, it got a local product. Erving grew up in Roosevelt, Long Island, a mile and a half away from the Nets new home.

Dr. J delivered the Nets their first ABA title that first season, defeating the Utah Stars. In 1976, Erving and his iconic afro delivered yet another championship to New York basketball as a member of the Nets. New York defeated the Denver Nuggets to win their second ABA championship for Erving and the franchise.

Erving spent a total of three seasons, playing under the Nassau Coliseum light, winning two ABA titles and two ABA MVP’s to go along with many more individual league honors. After Erving’s trade to the Philadelphia 76ers — right after winning the 1976 ABA title — he wasn’t the only one leaving the island. The following year, 1977, the New York Nets relocated to New Jersey, ending the historic chapter of professional basketball on the island.

It was not until 39 years later, until the Nets returned to the arena where it all started. The inaugural season of the Long Island Nets, the Brooklyn Nets new Development League team, was announced on November 5, 2015. Nets basketball was coming back to the Coliseum.

On opening night for the Long Island Nets at the Coliseum a year and a half later — after a $200 million renovation— Dr. J was honored and so was his mentor; Don Ryan. The Nets raised his No. 32 jersey into the rafters of the Coliseum with Dr. J himself looking on. Fast forward to today…

With three seasons in the history books, the Nets are the G League’s defending Eastern Conference champs, falling one game of the G League championship, one game short of bringing a third professional basketball title back to the island.

None of the players on the Nets roster, nor coaches, got to witness Dr. J and his signature Afro win ABA titles for the island but his jersey hangs above their heads every night they play at the Coliseum.

Although none of the players nor coaches witnessed those iconic moments for Long Island basketball, they know the legacy. They realize the history inside the walls of the Coliseum and the passion the Long Island fans have for not only their team but for the sport of basketball. In a sense, the Long Island goal isn’t just about player development and winning, but also bringing big time basketball back to Nassau and Suffolk ... and breaking the Knicks hold on the island.

Deng Adel, the 6’7” wing player who’s Long Island’s leading score, did not know what to expect from the crowd going into the home opener on Monday vs. the Hawks affiliate. Post-game, Adel said he loved the energy the 1,400 or so fans showed throughout the game.

“I did not know what to expect coming into this game,” Adel said. “It was a great crowd out there. Huge basketball fans so it was really fun to play out there. Unfortunately, we did not get the win for them but we will get the next one for them.”

C.J. Williams, who’s spent part of three seasons in the G League, always enjoyed playing at the Coliseum as an opponent. It is, after all, the largest and most modern of the G League arenas. Now, he gets to wear the LIN threads and represent Long Island basketball at the Coliseum.

“It’s always great to play in a big coliseum where you have a lot of support and a lot of seats to fill,” Williams said. “It’s always fun to play in those environments and we’ll see how things go.”

For Long Island’s Princeton-trained sharpshooter, Devin Cannady, there’s a special connection to Long Island. Brian Taylor, the 6’2” New York Nets sharpshooteron those title runs, is also a former Princeton Tiger. The 6’2” Cannady carries Taylor’s personal legacy as well ... from one Tiger to another.

“This was a great atmosphere and a great venue,” Cannady said following the Game 2 loss to the College Park Skyhawks. “Now, you walk around the halls and see all the people that have been here and you look in the rafters and see Dr. J and even Brian Taylor, who was a Princeton player. He played on the Nets, he played here, and I talked to him before the game. He said ‘set this moment up and enjoy the game.’ It was a really cool environment.”

Cannady, in fact, tweeted that he hopes the fans enthusiasm will be rewarded Friday when Long Island will play against the Delaware Blue Coats.

Shaun Fein, the Long Island Nets coach, knows how important basketball is on this island. He hopes, throughout the season, his players and himself not only attract a good crowd for their home games but give back to the community.

“I think it is super important,” Fein said. “We want to get into the community as much as we can and hopefully the community will be involved in all of our games this year at Nassau Coliseum. It always gives us a little boost when we have more people there with a little bit more noise. It gets the guys jacked up a little bit so hopefully everybody will come out and support us.”

Alton Byrd, the vice president of business operations for the Long Island Nets, did watch Dr J. He was a star at Columbia University in the late 1970’s. Byrd tells people all the time… the Coliseum was built by Dr. J, despite it being known today primarily as the home of the New York Islanders of the NHL.

“Obviously, if you were to ask, you know, a hundred people, they would proceed with the Coliseum as the home of the Islanders and hockey,” said Byrd. “I have spent the best part of two years to remind people that prior to the New York Islanders playing at the Coliseum is the New York Nets and that is why the Coliseum was built. It was really the house that Julius [Erving] built. It has been years since there’s been professional basketball on the island.”

“We have a very unique legacy. The last professional basketball to win a professional basketball championship was not the New York Knicks. It was the New York Nets.

Throughout Monday’s game, the crowd maintained the same energy, staying till the final buzzer sounded. Coach Fein said he hopes the crowd can bring that same energy and continue to come out for the remainder of their home games.

“Good, the crowd got into it,” Fein said following the loss. “We made a little run in the third, fourth quarter, so we’re going to need them throughout the year and hopefully they continue to come out.”

The Nets second home game,, on Friday Nov. 15, is going to be another night in the history books as Long Island will raise their 2018-19 G League Eastern Conference Championship banner into the rafters of the Coliseum, not far from Dr. J’s jersey

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Look for the debut Friday of the Nets two two-ways Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot and Henry Ellenson. Neither have played with either the Long Island or Brooklyn Nets.