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Leaving but still loving the Nets: a Jersey tale

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JoeNetsFan.com was the Nets blog when the New Jersey Nets went to the Finals nearly 20 years ago, the first place for Nets fans to gather and read one of their own. Plus the artwork!

Joe, aka Mike Kozlowski, was a season ticket-holder at the Meadowlands/Continental Airlines Arena/IZOD Center. When the Nets made their two treks, first to Newark, then to Brooklyn, those 13 miles was a bridge or tunnel too far. In the end, the site’s slogan was, “No Sleep Till Brooklyn (Unfortunately).”

So, when Steve Politi of the Star-Ledger penned a piece on whether New Jersey fans should relish the prodigal’s success in Brooklyn, who better to turn to?

“Look, I was adamant when they left: I wasn’t going to watch them any more, and the good thing was, with the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce years, you didn’t have to,” Mike Kozlowski, a season ticket holder during their Meadowlands days, told me. “But this is different. How do you not watch them? How can you root against them?”

He sighed.

“It’s probably time to let it go.”

Indeed, modern day sports, as Jerry Seinfeld once joked, is often more about rooting for the laundry but the draw can’t be denied. There are memories to cherish, legacies to savor. Not to mention just the love of the game ... their game.

Politi, who once excoriated Bruce Ratner and Mikhail Prokhorov for moving the team, now argues that if JoeNetsFan can “let it go,” isn’t it time for the whole state to do the same? (Okay, the northern end of the state. Even Benjamin Franklin called New Jersey a “keg tapped at both ends.”)

The veteran Star-Ledger columnist also writes, it’s fine to be nostalgic about the environs off Route 3 in East Rutherford, but the reality was a bit different. The support wasn’t there even with Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson, Kenyon Martin and later Vince Carter lighting up a poorly lit arena. “We never loved them, not like other markets do with their NBA teams.”

And the arena, whatever you called it, was, in a word, dank. As Politi recalls, there were certain elements that appeared downright unsafe.

The footbridge! My goodness, remember the footbridge? After games, it would smell like it had been sprayed with a special urine-scented disinfectant, and I know I can’t be the only one who always expected the whole thing to collapse every time we trudged back to our car.

So let bygones be bygones. IF, IF, IF the Nets win tonight, they will be back in the conference Finals for the first time since 2003, when they played at Continental Airlines Arena.

Under Joe Tsai (and his wife, Clara Wu Tsai) the Nets are trying to make amends on their end. Having Kyrie Irving be introduced as being from Duke University AND “West Orange, New Jersey” is one piece and those 1991 throwback jerseys —that shimmering blue number— is very, very popular. “Can’t keep them on the shelves,” one Nets executive told us recently.

When the Nets moved to Brooklyn, they expected a significant number of the New Jersey fans would follow. Some did, but nowhere near what the brass expected. There was a lot of resentment. Chris Christie, then governor, wished them ill. “Good riddance,” he said. Now, all that seems to be fading. It’s hard to forget 35 years ... and hard to ignore, as Politi writes, how “freaking good” they are.

For those of us Jerzoids who do make the trek (as we will tonight), the hope is that the outreach begun this year continues ... and hope that we see Joe at a game or two going forward and give him reason to remember. After all, as he told Politi, “Once upon a time, that old arena was the center of the basketball universe.”