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We didn’t start the fire ... a look back at Nets weird, weird season

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NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Sacramento Kings Sergio Estrada-USA TODAY Sports

The day is Wednesday, October 23. The Brooklyn Nets are hosting the Minnesota Timberwolves on opening night – the big night when everybody would see the “new Nets” with Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant. Although Durant wasn’t playing, as expected, there was still excitement… just to see him on the bench, on Brooklyn’s side.

I get off the train and come out to a beating sun. I’m wearing a funky green, brown and yellow suit as I prepare for my seventh season covering the Nets. This year was different, though. This year was the big stage. For me. For the Nets. For everybody in that building. I have “The Ends” by Travis Scott blasting through my headphones as I prepare to walk through the media doors. Deep inhale. Door opens. Large exhale.

I’m home again.

Things were… different. I walked down and went by the new gray court. Not bad, I thought, commercialized and different. Then, I walked to the locker room for media availability. I catch up with the security guard at the door and he tells me, “Man things are different around here, things are different! You’re about to see!” He opens the door and I make my way towards the locker room. I felt as if I walked into a Nike spaceship. Brooklyn’s entire locker room was refurbished. It was this incredible, futuristic cave with almost all new faces.

Things are different, I thought. They’re even a little weird.

That was only the beginning to the weirdest season I’ve ever watched/been a part of. And to this very day, it feels like that spaceship took me into the unknown. Who knew that I had boarded late, though.

Preseason

The Nets and Lakers were set to play two preseason games in China early October. This was less than a day or two after Houston Rockets GM, Daryl Morey, had retweeted the “Fight for freedom, standing with Hong Kong” logo. All hell proceeded to break loose. The Nets new owner Joe Tsai, who boasted he was Chinese rather than Taiwanese, released his own statement.

The players landed in Shanghai to see their own personal billboards being painted over. Fans covered NBA logos with Chinese flag stickers. Players and coaches were basically on lockdown at their hotels. There were posts on the Chinese site Weibo suggesting fans boycott the game. Yes, there was a chance the players would play in front of an empty arena or not at all. Sounds normal now, but as one assistant coach from the Lakers texted me, “We’re all OK but that was weird as hell.”

A omen for a very strange season for the Brooklyn Nets – and a macro level – for the NBA.

Let’s start with the first 10 games of the season.

The Nets dropped six of the first 10 in yes, a weird beginning. Kyrie Irving dropped 50 in a loss to open the season that night against the Timberwolves. It was one of three losses in which the Nets lost by four points or less in the first 10 games. At that point, it was too early to pass any judgement.

Then, Caris LeVert re-aggravated his thumb in a game against the Phoenix Suns. Out at least one month. One day later, the Nets Public Relations page tweeted the injury list for a November 15 battle against the Chicago Bulls. “Kyrie Irving – Questionable (Right shoulder impingement).”

And. Here. We. Go.

Irving went on to miss 21 games – and didn’t speak to media during that time frame! No updates on the injury, no further word. Just… out with a right shoulder impingement. Nobody knew how long. Finally, on January 4, he spoke to reporters and brought up the possibility of in-season or off-season surgery. It was the first time the S-word was raised.

Five days later, he was practicing with the team. Three days later, he was back on the court like nothing ever happened. We later learned he received a cortisone shot and was flying on that, but the entire ordeal – how the Nets handled it, how Kyrie handled it, etc — it was just strange ... to be kind.

The Nets were an inconsistent bunch with no identity. That blue-collar team I watched the past three seasons under Sean Marks and Kenny Atkinson seemed to have lost their way. It was different with superstars in the building and all, but it was gone. Like, completely. The Nets became that team that would win four straight games, then weeks later; lose seven straight games.

In the midst of those injury-ridden months, the Nets found something ... despite Irving and LeVert being out. They became a scrappy team behind the lead of Spencer Dinwiddie, who was quickly emerging as a potential NBA All-Star. David Nwaba, a gritty two-way player who turned into the heart of the second unit appeared to be yet another one of Marks’ steals. He was the next man up, playing for a contract in this league while quickly becoming a fan favorite.

On December 14, Nwaba tore his Achilles against the San Antonio Spurs. Gut wrenching. One of those “life isn’t fair” moments. The Nets had an available spot and signed Iman Shumpert, somebody whose game was awfully similar to Nwaba’s, at least on defense. Shumpert instantly became a likable character in the locker room and a fan favorite. The Nets even went 7-2 while he was on the team, despite Irving missing all that time. They were forced to drop him because Wilson Chandler’s 25-game suspension was up.

There was this small ray of hope that Kevin Durant would return despite Marks telling us on Media Day that the “expectation” was he’d be out the entire season. Despite all the rebuttals, people within KD’s circle were posting videos of his progress. He looked closer and closer with every video.

At the time, one source close to the situation told me, “His return this season is not as far-fetched as some may think.”

Whatever.

The Nets were playing under the impression that he wouldn’t return and that was fine, but just the idea that the Nets, who struggled to even reach .500 WITH Kyrie, might – just might – have KD back in time a late-season push and then playoff run. Yay!

Those days feels like years ago.

The world came crashing down on everybody. David Stern passed away and that was difficult enough for people to cope with. A little more than three weeks later, Kobe Bryant, his daughter Gianna and seven others were killed in a horrific helicopter accident.

The Nets were set to play the Knicks at Madison Square Garden that night. This was one day after Kyrie dropped 45 in a win over the Detroit Pistons. Irving was Kobe’s protege. Sure, a lot of people were Kobe proteges but no, Kyrie was HIS guy and vice versa. When he heard about the news, he broke down, spoke to Kenny Atkinson, grabbed his belongings, and disappeared for the night… and days afterwards.

The NBA was in shock. They shouldn’t have played the games, even though you might hear someone say, “Kobe would’ve wanted them to play!” Sure, but players could barely play. Their tears said it all, the utter silence and shock inside NBA arenas spoke loud enough.

The final video of Kobe and his daughter also just happened to have been taken courtside at a Nets-Hawks game weeks earlier. That moment —father and daughter talking hoops— will live in people’s heads forever, including mine. I was walking back to my media seat in section 115 after saying hello to a few Nets fans. Across the court I saw Kobe – and I remember saying, “Holy s*** that’s Kobe!”

The NBA was lost. The season already felt gone but the games had to go on…

Kyrie’s second game back from mourning his friend, he dropped 54 points in a win over the Chicago Bulls. It was the second most points in a single game by any Net, second to Deron Williams’ 57 points in the 2011-2012 season. The next game he scored 11 points and took only 12 shots. He exited the game early after Bradley Beal fell on his knee. No good.

Although he was out, the knee wasn’t an issue.

His shoulder was acting up again. On February 20, the Nets announced that Irving would undergo surgery, ending his season after 20 games played – an 8-12 record with him in the lineup.

The Nets steadied the boat during his absence. They remained the seventh seed in the East with Caris LeVert emerging as the star everybody hoped he would become. The early injuries delayed what could’ve been happening earlier, but nobody was complaining.

On March 3, LeVert dropped 51 points in a huge comeback win against the Boston Celtics. The Nets climbed back after trailing by 21 points, LeVert dropping 37 in the fourth quarter and OT. Nets two-way guard, Chris Chiozza, logged his first real minutes of action and was the second man up in leading the comeback, unafraid on the big stage.

For one night…

It felt like things were normal, depending on what your standards are for normalcy. For the Nets, a comeback victory on the back of one its poster boys and another hidden gem. It sounded just about right.

That was the last time I can remember things being normal – and fun – but it was just for one night. Basketball was rich for the night, a wonderful redemption story for LeVert who has had so many surgeries you can barely count the amount on one hand. Not to mention, the comeback began around the moment Boston fans poured down the hate, chanting, “WHERE’S KYRIE?!”

An end to Markinson

On March 7 following a huge 19-point win over the San Antonio Spurs , the Nets let Kenny Atkinson go. The phrase was “mutually parted ways” but that seemed ridiculous. The Nets suffered their worst defeat in the Markinson era one game earlier against the Memphis Grizzlies. The inconsistency — big wins followed by big losses, winning streaks following losing streaks — had done the popular Atkinson in.

I’m usually late to Atkinson’s post-game interviews because we try and get the game story up as soon as possible here at NetsDaily. After the Grizzlies blowout, I remember opening the door as quietly as I could, hoping not to interrupt his spiel. But instead I saw a handful of media members sitting quietly, looking around the room in confusion. Almost every Nets beat writer was firing off tweets, mentioning how Atkinson took longer than ever to come out and speak.

It was over

Nets players had aired out their frustrations, lack of one-on-one communication that night. His voice was no longer resonating with certain players – some who had barely played for him or never played for him at all.

The win over the Spurs would be Kenny’s last game as head coach of the Brooklyn Nets. The team he built from nothing to something. The beat-up old Honda that he turned into a Rolls Royce that attracted the best of the best. His development, system and blue-collar identity turned the Nets into a team led by Jeremy Lin into a team led by Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the span of three seasons.

It’s a weird time when Kenny Atkinson isn’t the head coach of the Nets. It’s a weird day in sports in general – Atkinson was the longest tenured coach in all of New York sports at that time. Then, without warning, he was gone.

And then ... the end

The coronavirus COVID-19 was spreading fast. The league had taken precautions in the weeks before, informing NBA personnel and media to avoid contact with one another. Nobody really took it too serious during final games at Barclays Center. Even me. It was weird being in a professional environment and not being able to shake hands. Like, it’s part of our culture. Not just business culture, but our everyday life. It’s habit to offer your hand when respectfully greeting somebody.

I saw Ian Eagle before the Grizzlies game on March 4. For those of you who don’t know Ian on a personal level, the guy is a class act if I’ve ever seen one. Even if it were a five-minute conversation, I always cherished the time I spent talking with Ian because he’s so genuine. He asks about family, life and things that matter outside of hoops (although those conversations can go on for days!)

I was making my rounds before the game, saying hello to the ushers and everybody else for that matter. Some shook hands, some hesitated, some did the fist-bump. It was weird, especially in Brooklyn because that “spread love” line – it’s literal here. When we see one another, it’s like seeing family at a Holiday party.

Anyway, I’m standing with two ushers talking about everything that was going on. Ian walked through the Nets tunnel and the three of us were somewhat in his way. Ian put out the fist, I put out the hand. We made a turkey handshake (half-pound, half-shake)… Ian opened his hand, dapped me up and I said, “Fuck it, we go down together!” as me, Ian and the two ushers burst out laughing. It was nobody’s fault. We didn’t know what was really going on.

After the game, the same thing happened with a player I had seen in the locker room. Nets personnel advised us to fist bump, half-kidding, half-serious. We shook hands and then put on hand sanitizer. Purrell Nation.

That was the last impression I have. The brink of normalcy drifting off into unchartered waters, as a worker, as a human, as a student and fan of the game that took me away from real life. Just like everybody else who loves sports.

I couldn’t wait to launch my brand/podcast “The Brooklyn Way”. My producer and I worked countless hours for months to do it the right way. We launched at 8:30 PM ET. I was so excited to see the positive feedback and support. In the background of my newly setup desk, I heard Ryan Ruocco say how the NBA would cancel the rest of the evening games, but the game he was calling continued! Then, there was a daunting clip pregame. With seven minutes until tip-off, the New Orleans Pelicans remained in the locker room. The court was half empty.

Finally, shit hit the fan.

Headline: Rudy Gobert tests positive for the coronavirus.

At 9:30 PM ET, Adrian Wojnarowski tweeted that the NBA has suspended the season.

The Nets and Warriors were supposed to play a game in front of an empty arena in Golden State on March 12, the same way the Nets prepared to play a game in front of an empty arena during the preseason in China. Like I said, weird. It never even got to that point. Life just started spiraling out of control, more players testing positive for the virus, including four Nets players, Kevin Durant included.

Life hasn’t been the same and there’s no saying when we’ll find normalcy as a community, as a country or globally. We’re in unchartered waters and we need leadership now more than ever.

You know how Jerry Garcia sang, “What a long strange trip it’s been” in the song Truckin’? That’s what this season/year feels like. That spaceship I entered from Day One? It feels like I was transported into another dimension with no end in sight.

It’s just nice to know I’m not alone in this, but it’s just so weird.