The Brooklyn Nets can scrub hard, but the Jersey won’t come off

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David Roth

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Mere hours after the New Jersey Nets' final Garden State home game last week, the team made a thorough and final disappearance from Newark's Prudential Center.

The lockers were cleared, cleaned and otherwise anonymized, and the banners commemorating a long-ago A.B.A. Championship and the two Eastern Conference titles last decade and the various retired numbers came down from the rafters. When the New Jersey Devils showed up for their morning skate the next day, every last trace of the Nets had vanished.

But the Nets were gone in every way that mattered long before that last home game, which turned out to be another in a long line of desultory, short-handed losses, and a well-attended wake that was alternately peevish and sentimental in the finest Jersey fashion.

Through two changes of ownership, three changes of naming rights for their two different home courts, the Nets had spent the better part of the last decade going about getting gone. Owner Bruce Ratner—who bought the team to anchor his proposed Atlantic Yards real estate development, not to challenge for Eastern Conference championships—slashed payroll and quickly had a zombified, money-losing team on his hands. C.E.O. Brett Yormark created a game experience that was suffocatingly sponsored, leveraged and brand-identified—revenue had to come from somewhere, after all—and resoundingly anonymous.

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The words "New Jersey" were scrubbed from the team's jerseys, and from everything else having to do with the team. The manic game experience could have arrived in shrink-wrap from Orlando or Phoenix. The sponsors shifted by the season, a faceless parade of corporate partners "presenting" this or that halftime show or T-shirt toss or senior dance team.

Imagine a distracted, mostly disingenuous "it's not you, it's me" speech that drags on for nearly a decade at ear-splitting volume, interrupted only by canned crowd noise, the airy poompf of a T-shirt cannon and one 13-point loss after another, and it's easy to understand why the prevailing mood at the last game in New Jersey was one of faintly nostalgic exhaustion.

The organization, too, seemed resigned: There was barely any merchandise for sale, and what little there was had been marked down. Bathrooms on the mezzanine were without paper towels even before tip-off. Even the few jeers directed at Jay-Z, a minority owner and resident Brooklyn-credibility totem, felt half-hearted.

The organization made some acknowledgement of Nets history—past players delivered video messages and others were on hand to receive their applause in person at halftime. The dance team welcomed back alumnae from the past decade, and nearly 40 past and present Nets Dancers did their choreographed thing to "Proud Mary" during the second quarter. But it was impossible to escape the sense that the Nets were more than ready to go. Two hours after the game, Nets.com's front page switched over to a black screen with #HelloBrooklyn on it.

That was, as it turned out, a tease for the Nets-logo reveal on Monday. The first #HelloBrooklyn billboard, gnomic in the classic viral style, went up in Manhattan on the morning after the last home game, and read "Of Course It's Personal;" it was presumably not directed at the fans who had turned out in Newark the night before. Across from Madison Square Garden, on what would seem to qualify as enemy turf, the Nets hung a banner reading "First Home Game Since 1957." The campaign—for the hearts and minds and season-ticket dollars of fans variously priced out, bummed out or otherwise not in on what the Knicks were selling—was on.

But on Twitter—which would, after all, seem to be a hashtag's natural environment—traffic was notably slower. By lunchtime on Monday, the #HelloBrooklyn video on the team's website—"Your streets pulse to your own beat. Your people are your charm."—had all of 23 Facebook likes. But these things take time. Leaving New Jersey and starting over in New York City, aiming for bigger things—"Nets finally get their life together and move out of New Jersey at age 35," as blogger D.J. Gallo had it—isn't easy.

I'd know, because I, like my middle-school Nets-game buddies from Jersey who joined me in paying $10 (after "convenience charges") on StubHub for our $50 seats at that last game, had done it, too.

The Nets will not bring much to Brooklyn, besides novelty and hope: The current team is lousy almost by design, stripped to ease the so-far-futile pursuit of high-end free agents. The idea was to pair point guard Deron Williams, a dynamic playmaker acquired in a blockbuster deal late last season, with disgruntled Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard.

That deal didn't happen. Howard has an injured back and a new reputation as one of the N.B.A.'s foremost and most grandiose ego-monsters, and Williams is reportedly eager to leave the organization for less-dysfunctional climes, seemingly heedless of the fact that the Nets new arena is a short walk from both the Brooklyn Museum and Al Di La. Without Williams or Howard, it's no exaggeration to say that the Nets could be the N.B.A.'s worst team when they tip off in Brooklyn next year. 

Of course, the Barclays Center—the Nets’ taxpayer-aided new arena, looming like a crashed U.F.O. over brownstone Brooklyn and above the old Atlantic Yards—is not exactly a Craigslist share off the Morgan stop on the L Train. There is that viral billboard campaign and all that Yormark marketing, and there is the chance that the team could snag a franchise-defining star in the N.B.A. Draft lottery. But mostly the Nets arrive in Brooklyn as naked and helpless as any hopeful, hopeless New Jersey emigrant.

During their 35 seasons in New Jersey, the Nets were intermittently good, usually bad and occasionally mind-bendingly awful. Always, though, they belonged. In a half-empty arena at the center of a traffic jam without end, before crowds that were only ever tentatively optimistic, the Nets reflected a benighted, fighting truth about New Jersey.

Now, they will, like so many of us who crossed the Hudson, look to remake themselves in Brooklyn, to shed the little-town blues that a famous New Jersey migrant gloat-sings about at the end of every Yankees home win. Unlike the rest of us, they will have no home to go back to on the other side of the river.

It would be nice to wish them luck, I suppose. But New Jersey people—even those of us who have tentatively made it here, and love the place—have a thing about forgetting where we come from, and a special scorn for the sort of self-exile who instantly calls himself a New Yorker. We hear the accent, and the lie in it. Everyone else can, too. It's a hard one to shake.