The Most Memorable Forgettable Team

The 2003 New Jersey Nets were one of the more doomed NBA Finalists in recent memory. A decade later, they're much more than that.
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Ten years ago the NBA seemed to be at a sort of post–Jordan—hell, even post-Ewing—nadir. Shaq and Kobe were fresh off a dreary run of titles in which they had gone 12-3 in three straight perfunctory NBA finals that were exciting to Laker fans and almost nobody else. Future societies, driven underground by global warming, will curse us for even bothering to play those games that, through their mass consumption of resources, only helped perpetrate the destruction of the planet without adding anything to humanity’s enjoyment of life on it.

En route to those titles, the Lakers banished the only two exciting teams of that era: the 1999-2000 Trailblazers and ‘01-02 Kings in two seven-game series. Those Blazers and Kings teams were overrun with exciting players—Sheed, Pippen, Sabonis, Stoudamire, Schrempf!, Bonzi Wells, a still too-young Jermaine O’Neal, Webber, Bibby, Divac, Peja, Turkoglu, and Scot Pollard, whose hair was clearly based on some extra he noticed in a DVD viewing of She’s All That. All the more depressing, the 90’s Bulls and 80’s Celtics and Lakers needed three great players to win titles; that the Lakers needing only two seemed just another symbol of league decline.

Miraculously, the 2004-2005 Steve Nash Suns, along with Lebron, Melo, Durant, Westbrook and company would soon lift the NBA out of its early-millenium torpor. It’s fitting that the 2003 NBA Draft, which would deliver us so much, was held only a few weeks after another putrid Finals, sans Lakers in this case. It was as if, by the summer of 2003, some higher power knew we needed basketball salvation. Or, more specifically, it was as if Jason Kidd was on the New Jersey Nets.

***

Nothing better symbolized the depressing state of the NBA during this stretch than the fact that the New Jersey Nets made two straight NBA finals appearances. The Nets went 2-8 in these Finals and provided nothing in the way of excitement or lasting memory. It was all transcendently forgettable, but also representative: even at their best, the Nets seemed inherently unworthy of being remembered, at least for the vast majority of fans whose allegiance was not to the team from East Rutherford. While Nets fans were doubtless thrilled by those consecutive NBA Finals, the rest of the nation winced in agony and wondered with mounting concern if “Two Guys, a Girl and a Pizza Place” was going to be unnecessarily pre-empted for any of the games (we then realized it hadn’t aired in two years, but it was still a little too close as far as historical memory is concerned).

But a funny thing has happened in the 10 years following the Nets unceremonious dispatching by the Spurs in the 2003 Finals. Against seemingly all odds, the roster of the 2002-2003 New Jersey Nets is now actually interesting, peopled with characters right out of the type of movie that is shown on IFC at three in the afternoon. It’s like a reverse “Boys of Summer:” these guys are more interesting and less depressing now than when they were actually winning the Eastern Conference. In managing that feat, the 2003 Nets have maybe accomplished something even more remarkable than actually winning a ring. They’ve not just improved in retrospect, but grown: those doomed Nets seem less sad now, and in some cases much more inspiring, whether it be for their achievements in civil rights, charitable foundations, insurance commercials, or meme-generation. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present your 2002-2003 New Jersey Nets ten years later:

Jason Collins – No reasonable person would have guessed that Jason Collins would wind up being the most admirable and historically significant member of this team a decade ago; today, only a special type of troll would deny it. If you don’t think becoming the first openly gay male athlete in a major sport is interesting, or more accurately courageous, then I’m guessing about one of the only really good things in your life is that there are tons of Yahoo.com message boards where your musings will be liked by literally hundreds of fellow bitter, outdated eunuchs.  

Jason Kidd – Recently retired and reunited with the Nets, and interesting by sheer dint of being both a legendarily great point guard and later a legendarily geriatric point guard. Leading the New Jersey Nets to consecutive NBA Finals appearances is both the greatest basketball achievement of Kidd’s career and an entirely valid reason to deny him first-ballot Hall of Fame honors.

Kerry Kittles – A co-worker recently asked me to guess his favorite Net from this team. I immediately replied, correctly, with Kerry Kittles. He was shocked but shouldn’t have been. Kittles still holds a bewitching and unexplainable trance on the coveted white, mid 30’s, corporate, mid-Atlantic, male demographic. Maybe it’s the Villanova thing, or the mild tragic sense of his injury-shortened career. Either way, he’s The National of the early 00’s NBA.

Brian Scalabrine Renowned generator of memes, and also a basketball player. There are 19 pages of them here. It would be tempting to say that these memes are a damning indictment of the vaguely oppressive nature of internet culture, but this type of communication has been with us, albeit in different forms, for decades now. It’s well known that during the 1959 NBA Finals, three local youths nicknamed Cans, Hot Plate and The Rev passed out comedic lithographs of Bob Pettit, so let’s all calm down concerning the decline of civilization.

Tamar Slay – Has really been stepping up his Twitter game lately. People, he needs more followers.  

Dikembe Mutombo – Future Hall of Famer, interesting for any number of reasons, but currently the primary one is that he’s in the only Geico commercial with those two Mumfordy cutups that is even remotely watchable. The worst part is how they congratulate themselves after each crummy joke. A camel on hump day...NICE. You nailed it! Camels do have humps!

Kenyon Martin – Former number 1 draft pick who roams the NBA landscape as one of the final remnants of that lost NBA era. Has managed to have a pretty decent NBA career and thus avoided placement on the “Early 21st Century NBA Uh Whatever” Mt. Rushmore, which currently features Rodney White, Drew Gooden and DerMarr Johnson.

Rodney Rogers – In the summer of 1990 I was at Duke Basketball camp. Which, I know, I know, is going to seem to many people like going to Pol Pot Summer camp. But let me say that you wouldn’t be holding onto the tired internet theme of Duke unfairly treating Assistant Coach Pete Gaudet if you had been yelled at by Gaudet three summers running for not understanding how to set a screen. Anyway, one of the perks of the camp was being able to watch evening pick-up games featuring current, former, and future ACC’ers and some local dudes—an almost-Ivy League Rucker Park of sorts.

Rodney Rogers, a Durham native, was absolutely dominant in these games; at one point he unspooled a 360 dunk in traffic from the baseline that remains the greatest basketball play I’ve ever witnessed in person and better than probably 85% of the dunks in NBA Jam Tournament Edition. After a week of watching, we all left summer camp convinced he was going to be a star, in the pure way that only 12-year-olds in colorful Umbros and oversized t-shirts can convince themselves of things. Despite some strong years at Wake Forest, and one of those great NBA moments that required you to call your cousin ON A LANDLINE, it didn’t quite work out for Rogers. By 2003 he was a bit player for the Nets, averaging 6.7 ppg.

A few years later Rogers was involved in a serious dirt bike accident in which he would be paralyzed from the neck down. After the accident Rogers was taken to Duke University Medical Center, less than a mile from where he had been so dominant all those years earlier. Playing those games at Cameron in 1990 was only one small part of the life of Rodney Rogers; defying editorial policy, longstanding habit and logic, the New York Post actually wrote a solid article on Rogers earlier this year, and it revealed a man who has lived a full, interesting life.

My memory of those games probably means very little to almost anybody else, which is how memories work, by and large. But man on that summer night at Cameron Indoor Stadium, with the doors open to let in a breeze, all the overstated ESPN trappings of the stadium nonexistent or at least temporarily absent, and in front of a collection of basketball lifers and summer campers, Rogers absolutely owned the place, delivering the basketball equivalent of a fire and brimstone sermon to the already converted. We were there because we believed, and he gave us something to believe in, and to remember. Championships are great, of course, but there are more enduring things.


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