I almost didn’t go. My enthusiasm for watching the Nets—already precariously low as well, they’re the Nets—was waning.
But a glass of whiskey & a $10 loan for train fare sparked the strangest professional sports experience I’ve attended.
The parking lots next to the Nets’ arena were as empty as the ones around Giants Stadium. Vincent Montana, shuttle driver and owner of an awesome name, said this was the fewest passengers he’d ever ferried. Only seven Nets fans rode the 153 bus to the Izod center. Portland, this was not.
The only car we saw on our side of a long stretch of yet-to-be-plowed road was nose-first into a concrete barrier with its hazards blinking, waiting to be towed away. Our bus driver shook his head.
“I can’t believe they didn’t cancel the game,” Vincent said. “This is horrible.”
But I’m damn glad I went. I was the Omega man. I was Henry Bemis from “Time Enough At Last” (it’s not fair!) It was sublime, unreal. Walking the concourse or buying a beer was an uneasy combination of exciting, strange, and funny. Eight food handlers for a single customer and his one beer. The paper said 1018 people braved the storm to watch the Nets flail, but I’ll go to my grave believing it was half that number. Maybe.
While those of us who normally couldn’t afford great seats were treated to the pick of the arena (we were allowed to sit anywhere in the lower bowl, except court-side) and free coffee or cocoa, the Nets players responded with their typical pedestrian, underwhelming performance. I’d always imagined that players would relish a change of environment, soak up the crazy atmosphere, enjoy the startling quiet during free throws, or at least pretend to respect that a thousand people care enough about their team to ignore the blizzard and risk life and limb to show their support. Again: Portland, this is not.
Bud I did confirm a few things last night. First, I was wrong to hate Brook Lopez. He’s one of the few reasons to go to Nets games on a random night. In addition to being one of the team’s only highlights, he’s a dude who cares, or at least has the decency to pretend he does. Look at some of the photos of the game; if anything, he’s probably too concerned for a 4-48 disaster on its way to breaking arguably the worst record in the NBA. He’s the one clapping for his teammates when he’s riding the pine.In last night’s debacle, he was the only one clapping. When Kiki Vandeweghe (has a coach ever looked so lost or perplexed?) decided the game was out of reach & cleared the bench, Lopez looks like KG. Or maybe it just looked that way in comparison to his teammates. Lopez was the only one who stood up to celebrate an alley-oop—the first bucket scored since what felt like the last Nets championship appearance. He was the only one to give Chris Douglas-Roberts a hand when he came limping towards the bench. He might be the only one you’d want to return if the team gets blown up.
I appreciate that. How can you not? I like that Lopez’s has the “Boy Named Sue” ugly glare. I like that he’s constantly frowning, constantly pissed off. He embodies part of what I love about the latest edition of the Blazers: they give a damn. When a fan’s dropping $30 on a game and grinding his teeth in traffic, much less braving a winter Nor’easter, it’s nice to see a player put out a similar effort level.
It’s nice to see someone care about the team as much as you do.
Not so with Yi Jianlian. Tonight confirmed my suspicion that Yi is a punchline looking for a joke. He’s the second coming of Shawn Bradley, if Shawn Bradley regularly bricked 18-foot jumpers and pissed off his teammates in the process. Yi is the World of Warcrafter who finally convinces himself to put on deodorant and show up to a party. He’s that awkward guy on the fringe of the action, the one making strange faces & talking to himself before he realizes he’s in public & being watched. Finally Yi psyches himself up—you can see him doing it, the process is painful—and finally dives into the action. Then everything goes sideways.
Most teams have a “human victory cigar”/”we’re down 30 points, it can’t get any worse” guy. Yi should be this guy; instead, he’s the Nets’ 7th man. The crowd deflates when he comes in. Every time he shoots, at least 50 people in the crowd scream like he just tossed an infant to a pack of pit bulls.
Last (with thanks to Carlos Delfino), players may pretend that hecklers don’t get to them, but they do. Thanks to the startling quiet of the near-empty arena, a heckler’s voice—mine is fairly loud—carries extra well. The emptiness of the Izod Center made heckling a scarier proposition—most loudmouths secretly agree that a certain level of anonymity is comforting— so it took nearly an entire quarter and a few cocktails to start in on Delfino. When I did, however, the effects were noticeable.
The first time, he looked more surprised than anything else. The second time Delfino snuck a glare at our section, got the ball at his own free throw line and charged down court. Jarvis Hayes kept with him and forced Delfino into a stupid turn-around leaner that bricked off the left side of the rim. Yi was under the basket for the board. So, of course, he botched it and gave up a quick two points.
The Lesson: keep on psyching out opposing players. I swear, it can sometimes work.
It’s not entirely fair to use this snow-out instance to illustrate Nets’ fans’ indifference and frustration with the team. But I remember a time from my season ticket days when Portland was hit with one of those random snow days, and everyone freaks out. This one they called the “Winter Blast.” Oregonians don’t know how to handle snow. It’s true for me, still: we get snow here in Manhattan and I still flip out like it’s Christmas come early. So it’s a snow day in Portland cars are running off the road, and the local news is screaming like it’s the friggin’ apocalypse, but fans still fight to get to the Rose Garden. In New Jersey, it’s a ghost town.