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BACK TO THE FUTURE: For New Jersey fans, tonight means Nets are finally getting it

Lucas Kaplan writes of being a New Jersey Nets fan and how the Brooklyn Nets are finally paying homage to a place and an era with their City Edition unis and oh, that court! It may seem like nostalgia or even marketing, but it’s more than that.

I was born in 2000. I haven’t a single memory of those great Jason Kidd-led Nets teams of the early aughts. As important as Kenyon Martin and Kerry Kittles are in Nets lore, to me, that’s a Nugget and a dude who I remember watching as much as George Mikan. My basketball fandom — the parts I remember, anyway — began around 2006.

The best parenting decision my parents ever made was by accident, raising me in an NBA allegiance-free household. My Dad loved the 70’s Knicks, and liked the 90’s Knicks, but was nothing more than an occasional viewer by the age of low-cut jeans.

Despite growing up a stone’s throw away from Madison Square Garden, I found the Nets and Knicks equally viable options: They were both on cable! I wouldn’t have known the difference if the Nets played in Madagascar. Still, it was them I quickly settled on. They were better than their Manhattan counterparts, on the same channel as my beloved Yankees, and were the more enjoyable watch, even to a six-year-old’s eyes. This was in large part thanks to Vince Carter, my first must-watch athlete. The classic, underrated ‘HeaVINsent’ poster has been on my bedroom wall for fifteen years.

Some of my earliest memories (about anything at all) include a sickly feeling watching Nenad Krstic collapse to the floor. How much I loved, maybe for no reason at all, Mikki Moore. Maybe it was his name.

The first-round victory over Toronto, followed by a series I swear the Nets could have won against the Cleveland Cavaliers and a young LeBron James.

I remember my dad and I taking three forms of public transportation to the IZOD Center for my first game. Damn did those cavernous hallways really smell like buttered popcorn! And yeah, it was fairly empty. But if there were only 20 people at the game, it sounded like 20,000 when Devin Harris hit that halfcourt shot (Yeah, I was lucky.)

There was 12-70, the Dwightmare, the Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace trades. I lived and died through all of it. It was kind of fun, in a masochistic sort of way. I mean, after all, my first love was the Yankees, and my Giants were in the midst of two Super Bowl wins. I needed balance in my life. And there was always something exciting about meeting a Nets fan, although there was almost none ... my age ... in the middle of Manhattan. We are a couple of weirdos, liking this team all the way out in New Jersey, and yeah, they kinda suck, but you know, the whole situation is kind of amusing. It was an exclusive club, and not because of high standards.

But, like any other team, the Nets gave fans moments that are impossible to forget, for better or worse (there’s no reason Josh Boone needs to be occupying space in my brain). And for most fans, unlike myself, those Nets represented home. Jersey. Sure, they got lumped in with the rest of the “New York Metro Area” teams, fittingly. But the ubiquity of the Knicks in New York allowed the Nets to carve out their role as Jersey’s team. The New York Jets and the New York Giants had no competition; they were the competition, it’s all in the name.

Being a Nets fan, even, maybe especially for a New York kid, was a conscious decision that you were, to no small extent, embracing some Jersey. I didn’t know that, explicitly. I just knew I was the outsider who liked this weird other team that wasn’t very good, the team felt like one big inside joke to its fans. The team that was certainly in the shadows, but didn’t really care about it. Now that’s Jersey. As Jersey as Agent Harris walking up to Tony Soprano outside Satriale’s and exclaiming, “How ‘bout those Nets?!”

There was no reason to abandon all things Jersey when the Nets (finally) moved to Brooklyn. No reason to redesign the franchise’s old banners in the new black-and-white fashion. No reason to not just refuse to place a simple little “NJ” anywhere on any uniforms, but to hardly include the word “Nets” on any jersey! And especially no reason to write the ahistorical “Est. 2012” on the merch, which was just a slap in the face. After all, the Nets had traded for the star player supposed to lead them to newfound success in Brooklyn...while they were still the New Jersey Nets.

There was no reason to discuss, ad-nauseum, the prospect of digging into a Knicks town, and creating a “newer” fanbase. Instead of the self-reflection required to understand the very real problems that precipitated the franchise’s understandable move to Brooklyn, the organization simply treated its Jersey tenure like some regrettable-ex that was holding them back. The problem wasn’t an inaccessible stadium, or a bad team, or a shallow roster. The problem was, the Nets just weren’t where they belonged.

The break-up didn’t need to be messy at all. This wasn’t necessarily a thoughtless ownership group taking an up-and-coming franchise out of Seattle and halfway across the country. Many Nets fans weren’t irate about the move itself, but merely how it was conducted. It felt like the organization was turning their back on Jersey entirely, and continued to do so in Brooklyn.

Thankfully, those days are over. The Nets will debut their City Edition kits and home floor tonight, vs. the Atlanta Hawks. And while the theme for every team is honoring the past, the Nets went above and beyond. Sure, the tie-dye uniforms of 2020-’21 harkened back to the early 90’s. But the Nets’ jersey and court scheme this season makes real, direct, references to the New Jersey days. Logos from the pre-Brooklyn days will be incorporated both on the court and in the threads. Somewhere, deep in the blood of these Nets, even as they’ve become a cast of super villains that play in New York, there are strong hints of Jersey. And it is so overdue that the organization is letting those come to the forefront. Better late than never.

Long live the New Jersey Nets. Their fans haven’t gone anywhere.