Brooklyn Nets Fans, Conditioned for Anything But, Learning the Stress of NBA Championship Expectations

Once upon a time, it was easy being a fan of the franchise now known as the Brooklyn Nets. One could revel in the intermittent good times with few to no expectations. When things got tough, you pined away for better days. But that came with the understanding that truly monumental disappointment was something for other fan bases. That is, until now.

The Nets lost their sixth consecutive game on Feb. 2. It’s appropriate that another disheartening loss came on Groundhog Day since the last six weeks or so have been highly repetitive. It’s the team’s longest slide since dropping seven straight from Dec. 26, 2019, to Jan. 7, 2020. That, however, came in the pre-expectation era.

Anointed championship favorites entering the season, the Nets are sixth in the Eastern Conference at 29–22. They are closer to the play-in tournament (1.5 games ahead of the seventh-place Charlotte Hornets) than the top of the East (3.5 games behind the Chicago Bulls).

The same thought keeps bouncing around: It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Not anymore.

The bad old days were a way of life for decades for the Brooklyn Nets

When the NBA admitted four survivors from the old American Basketball Association, optimism among the then-New York Nets fans was sky-high. The Nets were the ABA’s last champions and had won two of the final three titles in the upstart circuit. They weren’t the Brooklyn Nets; instead, Long Island housed a professional basketball franchise.

New York had Julius Erving, perhaps the biggest star in the game, ABA or NBA. On Sept. 1, 1976, the team acquired superstar point guard Tiny Archibald. As they say in the region, it was going to be yooge.

But Erving wanted a new contract. The franchise owed the New York Knicks an additional $3 million for invading their territorial rights. That was on top of the $3 million charged by the NBA for admission. When Roy Boe, the franchise’s governor at the time, sold Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers for — wait for it — $6 million, it wasn’t hard to put three and three together and blame Ned Irish and the Knicks.

Archibald’s knee blew up, the Nets lost 60 games, and a pattern emerged. Instead of heaven, Nets fandom descended to an exceptional level in a less-attractive neighborhood of the afterlife.

It remained that way for years. Larry Brown came in and turned the New Jersey Nets into a playoff team. Then he quit with six games left in what could have been a 50-win season because he felt a burning need to land another collegiate program in hot water with the NCAA.

Losses mounted. Stars came and went: Buck Williams, Derrick Coleman, Kenny Anderson. Dražen Petrović died tragically at the peak of his powers. A sort of numbness set in.

A stunning trade changed all that.

Jason Kidd and the NBA Finals experience was a new thing

In July 2001, still more than a decade before the dawning of the Brooklyn Nets, general manager Rod Thorn turned unhappy Stephon Marbury into Jason Kidd via a trade with the Phoenix Suns. New Jersey rocketed to the top of the mild, mild East.

Sure, when the Nets reached the NBA Finals in 2002, they got crushed by the Los Angeles Lakers. But the Nets in the Finals? That was enough. Then came a repeat trip in 2003 before David Robinson’s farewell tour with the San Antonio Spurs ended the Larry O’Brien Trophy dreams.

That was followed by a decade of increasing futility, capped by joining the dreaded 70-loss club in 2009–10. Rumors of a move to Brooklyn became a slow-developing reality. The New Jersey era didn’t die a quick, painless death. Instead, there were several seasons of empty arenas in East Rutherford and Newark to slog through.

The team did acquire another star point guard, Deron Williams, in preparation for the ride to Brooklyn. Then came Joe Johnson and a playoff appearance in the first year in the strange new black-and-white uniforms.

Billy King brought hope. Then he brought despair.

The Brooklyn Nets and the trade laughed at around the world

The good times haven't exactly been rolling for the Brooklyn Nets in 2021-22. Between injuries and various other issues, the championship favorites are floundering.
The good times haven’t exactly been rolling for the Brooklyn Nets in 2021-22. Between injuries and various other issues, the championship favorites are floundering.. | Steven Ryan/Getty Images

In July 2013, the Brooklyn Nets sold their souls and most of their draft picks for the next five years to get the remnants of Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce from the Boston Celtics. It was a great move in 2007. Not so much six years later. After assembling a team of veteran stars, King hired Jason Kidd to coach the squad about an hour after his retirement as an active player.

Yeah, that went well. Within two seasons, the Nets were among the NBA’s worst. New general manager Sean Marks traded cap space for future picks and found young talent on the scrap heap like Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie. In 2019, Brooklyn won 42 games with a young, scrappy team that was incredibly fun to watch.

Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving signed with the team in July 2019. Durant would miss a year recovering from a ruptured Achilles’ tendon. But when both were healthy, the wins came. So too did James Harden. But they couldn’t seem to be healthy at the same time.

But 2021–22 was going to be the year. Durant and Harden were healthy. Irving was … wait, he wasn’t going to what? Well, there was still KD and The Beard, right?

Valuable role player Harris had ankle surgery. In December, a coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak gutted the roster, so management relented and welcomed Kyrie back as a part-time point guard. Durant hurt his knee. Losses piled up.

After the disaster in Sacramento, the Brooklyn Nets are as far from a championship as they’ve ever been. It’s just the weight of expectations — still a new thing for this long-mocked fan base — that makes it seem worse. It may still be more fun to root for a contender. But it comes with a price: the awful feeling when everything goes sideways.

Statistics courtesy of Basketball Reference and Stathead.

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