EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. – They had come out of morbid curiosity, a perverse loyalty to the decades of embarrassment and humiliation here. They had come to see the fruition of how a despicable owner and a mismanaged Brooklyn arena bid transformed the New Jersey Nets back into a sinkhole of a franchise, a punch line for the sport. Families had come to wear paper bags, and a father and son had come to be threatened with expulsion by security for holding up a sign that said, "End Ratner's Reign of Error."
They had come because, well, they practically give tickets away here now.
Before the game, there was a Nets fan rushing down the steps into the lower bowl, waiting for Tom Barrise, the assistant coach told to step into the batter's box without a helmet for the two blowout losses that would make history and lean into a Clemens fastball. The fan wore a Nets hat, a Nets shirt and held tightly to a game program. He reached out and blurted, "Tom … Tom …" and clenched Barrise's fist and appeared to be as serious about this moment as any in his life, when he blurted these words straight from his broken Nets heart.
"One and 17 tonight, coach!" he said, and held on for a moment and repeated himself.
"One and 17!"
Who says they've stopped dreaming big dreams in Jersey? Barrise thanked the man, smiled and started to walk down the hallway and into the locker room. There had been discussion that some combination of the Nets' young talent and excessive injuries had conspired to make them unworthy of this record, that they somehow hadn't been constructed badly enough, nor played poorly enough, to deserve the historic humiliation that would come with 18 consecutive losses.
This was the Nets' Super Bowl, three decades of futility preparing them for this march into history, for this inglorious night.
Before a half-empty Meadowlands they lost 117-101 to the Dallas Mavericks, and the Nets had so much pride, so much resolve to fight and keep themselves from a biblical basketball embarrassment, they let the Mavs shoot 80 percent for a half and 90 percent for a quarter. It shouldn't be that easy to shoot that well in the layup line, but the Nets quit on this game, this streak, the way the owner, Bruce Ratner, quit a long time ago. Ratner has little money left for this franchise, and less character.
There have been far worse teams here, but team president Rod Thorn is right when he calls this a "perfect storm" that overtook the franchise, and ultimately, overtook the Miami Heat and Los Angeles Clippers for the longest losing streak ever to start a season. Eighteen straight losses, and suddenly these Nets look like they're rounding third and heading for the ultimate historical tombstone of 23 straight defeats.
"We are not a championship team this year," general manager Kiki Vandeweghe revealed before the game.
That kind of insight goes to the bench now, where the GM has been thrust downstairs to coach in the wake of Lawrence Frank's firing. After sources say he was rejected upon asking for a bump on his $1.8 million a year salary or an extra year on his expiring contract, Vandeweghe will run the first practice of his life Thursday. The Nets are paying journeyman coach Del Harris $200,000, sources say, to be his assistant for the rest of the season. Within the organization, they're already taking bets on how quickly Vandeweghe will lose the stomach for the job and cede the bench to Harris.
"January," one official guessed.
To save money – and spare space on the bench – the Nets will leave a different assistant home on every road trip. Eventually, they may start charging Josh Boone(notes) and Trenton Hassell(notes) for seats on the sideline.
The Nets are still hemorrhaging money – between $30 million and $40 million a year – and they've been forbidden to spend by both the current and next owner. For now, Vandeweghe is banking that he can impress Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov with some victories, some improvement, and perhaps find a way to keep his job.
Prokhorov's ownership bid is expected to be approved sometime after Jan. 1, and one high-ranking Board of Governors official says, "He's already checked out with the league through the FBI," and the finality of his takeover is just a matter of time.
Once Prokhorov takes over, his first order of business will be getting the new Brooklyn arena into construction. Five years ago, Ratner bought the Nets and declared they were abandoning Jersey, passing on a state-of-the-art arena rising in downtown Newark for a failed real estate grab in Brooklyn. He acted like it was a done deal, but he was never close to the financing it would take to get the project completed. "David Stern never should've let him buy this team unless he knew he had that arena in his back pocket," one Nets official says.
Commissioner Stern did let Ratner buy the Nets, and these awkward five years as a lame duck in Jersey has destroyed a franchise that Thorn had resurrected out of the embers. The man most responsible for the revival, Dallas' Jason Kidd(notes), happened to be an accidental tourist in the Meadowlands on Wednesday night and couldn't have cared less.
"It doesn't pain me," Kidd said. "I can't say I didn't see this coming."
Kidd delivered the Nets to two NBA Finals, made this franchise relevant for the first time since Dr. J, and yet it now feels like the losing had never stopped. On Wednesday, they could just look longingly at Kidd and remember those nights and seasons when he made the Nets matter, when this dysfunctional franchise belied its pitiful history and rose out of the rubble. Now, the Nets will leave Jersey the way they arrived three decades ago and then operated for most of those years: as a punch line, a twisted wreckage in the swamp off Exit 16W of the Turnpike.
Near the end of the game, there was a man standing across the court from the Nets' bench, wearing a "Bad News Bears" jersey and silently holding a sign into the air. "I'm here for the history," it said, and that's all that was left in this empty, embarrassed arena – just a morbid curiosity, a perverse loyalty to watch this march into the arms of failure. They had come to salute a historic night in Jersey, a fitting tombstone for a franchise that no one should now ever declare is undeserving of these 18 straight losses.
The Nets didn't back into this record, but earned it Wednesday. All together, the New Jersey Nets laid down and quit on themselves, the way the owner quit on Jersey five years ago. Bruce Ratner will go down as one of the most destructive owners in NBA history, and for one night until the Russian billionaire takes over, one more inglorious night, everyone wanted to celebrate that man's incompetence and failure in the odd kind of way they could only do here, in Jersey, where NBA basketball seasons have long come to die.