NEWARK, N.J. -- It's poetic that the New Jersey Nets played their last basketball game in the Garden State against the Sixers, since it was against Philadelphia that the New Jersey Nets scored their first, big postseason victory.
That was in 1984, in the first round of the playoffs, when the franchise -- led by Otis Birdsong and Micheal Ray Richardson's 48 combined points and Buck Williams' 16 rebounds -- won its first playoff series as the New Jersey Nets. And to do it in a fifth and final game against the defending NBA champions at the Spectrum was not a fact to get lost in the retelling of the victory.
It was a very big deal.
"It was huge," Richardson said after a brief halftime ceremony to celebrate the Nets' run in Jersey. "We went into the game without anyone even giving us a chance. We won the first two there, came back home and they won the next two and then we won Game 5."
Richardson remembered dancing around on the Spectrum floor with a broom after the Nets won the series and pulled off the road sweep. He also remembered Julius Erving telling reporters before Game 5 to phone it in for the finale, because there was no way the Sixers were going to lose to the Nets.
"He just didnt know he was the one going home," Richardson said.
So now, maybe, the Nets are finally going home for good. After 35 years and four different home courts in New Jersey, the Nets will become one of the glamour teams in downtown Brooklyn. They now are owned by Russian multi-billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov and rap superstarmogul Jay-Z, who looked a little out of place sitting courtside during the finale on Monday night.
Jay-Z showed up for the last game in New Jersey, but the state's governor, Chris Christie, made a great show of explaining why he wasn't at the game and gave the franchise a sendoff as only a jilted politician can.
"My message to the Nets is 'goodbye,"' Christie said during a press conference on Monday. "If you don't want to stay, we don't want you. Seriously, I'm not going to be in the business of begging people to stay here. That's one of the most beautiful arenas in America that they've had a chance to play in. It's in one of the country's most vibrant cities.
"They want to leave here and go to Brooklyn? Good riddance. See you later."
The Nets didn't seem to be too upset by the sendoff, either, pointing out that they have a chance to be one of the NBA's signature franchises playing in Brooklyn, on, ironically, the same piece of real estate that Dodgers' owner Walter O'Malley wanted to use for a new baseball stadium way back in the 1950s. When notorious urban planner Robert Moses balked at the Dodgers moving from Flatbush to Downtown Brooklyn, the team packed up, moved to Los Angeles and the rest is history.
Meanwhile, the Nets are moving back to New York where they spent the years from 1968 to 1977, winning two championships in the ABA. In fact, when folks think of the Nets, it's usually because they remembered the team that was one of the premiere franchises in the upstart league.
Indeed, no one ever confused the Nets of New Jersey with the halcyon days of the franchise in New York, when it won the ABA title with Julius Erving in 1976, just before the merger. The Nets with the red, white and blue uniforms and Dr. J, in his No. 32, knifing through the lane with the red, white and blue ball palmed above his flowing afro is the lasting tableau of the era, franchise and league.
That's what the Nets are trying to recapture with the move to the Barclays Center in downtown Brooklyn, when they become the Brooklyn Nets, officially ending 35 years of history in North Jersey.
"The grass is always greener on the other side, so we'll see," said Richardson, who represented the New Jersey era of the franchise the way Dr. J represented the ABA days. "It could be green or it could be brown."
Still, for 20 years, the victory over the Sixers in 1984 marked the only time New Jersey advanced past the first round of the playoffs. Current Sixers' president Rod Thorn, who was honored with many of the old Nets at halftime, helped reinvent the glory days of the New Jersey Nets when he brought in Byron Scott to coach draft picks like Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson to mix with veterans Jason Kidd, Keith Van Horn, Rodney Rogers and Dikembe Mutombo. The result was two straight trips to the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003.
Considering that the Lakers and Nets are the only teams to go to the finals in consecutive years since 1998, and only a handful of NBA teams have back-to-back Finals' appearances throughout the history of the league, the Nets' run was fairly significant.
"They were in the finals. A lot of teams have never been," Richardson said. "Look at the Bobcats -- are they ever going? Think about all the other teams and the Nets got there. We beat the defending champions -- it's not that easy. If you look at all the NBA teams in the history of the game, there isn't a lot of winners. There is only one, so everybody else is the same."
Along the way there were some interesting times in New Jersey. Sixers' coach Doug Collins remembers a game shortly after the ABA-NBA merger when the Sixers played a Nets team that started five different left-handed players. He also remembered how the locker room manager would also fix up a strong drink for the opposing coaches for the bus trip out of town after a loss to the Nets.
And, of course, the Nets played their home games at Rutgers University before moving to the Meadowlands and then to Newark. The games on campus were always pretty wild, Collins remembered.
"I remember busing up there and they had that college crowd. Julius was always such a fan favorite and we always had a lot of ABA guys," Collins said. "We had Caldwell Jones, Julius, Bobby Jones -- we had a ton of ABA guys and they were always very popular."
In the end, it seemed fitting that the Nets closed out their New Jersey days with a loss in a season that will go nowhere. The team's top player, Deron Williams, was on the bench with a calf injury and his future with the team up in the air, while players like Kidd and Martin sent recorded messages to wish the team well in Brooklyn. Heck, even The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, made it to the last game via a recording when "Born to Run," a song about breaking free of New Jersey, was played after the final buzzer.
Just like that, like Ft. Wayne, Syracuse, Buffalo, San Francisco and St. Louis, New Jersey has become another footnote in the history of the NBA. A place where games were once played before it was time to go see if the grass was green or brown.
E-mail John Finger at firstname.lastname@example.org