What Jeffrey Gamblero Knew

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I was a season ticket holder for the first two seasons that the Brooklyn Nets existed. I was there for their first game against the Toronto Raptors. So, too, I’m sure, was Jeffrey Gamblero.

For those two years, our seats were in the upper level, but it was impossible to miss him. He was always on the Jumbotron and fluttering in the aisles, constant movement and energy and action. With his clothes, oversized glasses and flat-brimmed hat, he seemed like an astroturfed, team-created version of a Brooklyn Hipster, but he wasn’t. The team had commissioned Marvel to create an official mascot called the “BrooklyKnight,” who was retired after last season, and with good reason. They didn’t need him. Right there, in our section, the team already had its champion.

I should note that I found Gamblero to be singularly annoying, a perfect point of fixation for my frustration with the bland, anodyne Nets. Even now, the team doesn’t really have fans as much as they have a bunch of people who go to the games and root for them while debating food options. There’s no better proof of this than a Knicks/Nets game at Barclays Center: I’d say Nets supporters typically outnumber Knicks fans by a 60/40 ratio, but Knicks fans, conspicuously, create 80 percent of the noise.

It’s the same with other big-time franchises: the Lakers, Celtics, Bulls and Cavs, now, draw a fair share of partisan fans that have no problem moving into the Barclays seating area, which is basically neutral territory; Raptors fans were able to do this last year in the playoffs. In this sea of blandness, Gamblero stood out. He seemed to care, even if wasn’t clear quite why or how.

It’s clearer now. A graffiti artist and poker player who moved from one successful hustle to the next, Gamblero correctly identified that the Nets were a blank slate, there for the taking. He painted his image into every Nets home game, to the point that he and the team were inseparable. There’s a reason the entire team and cheerleading crew wore “his” No. 44 jersey on Tuesday night. On an aging, boring, and seemingly bored team, his was the only real identity they had.

On December 2, Gamblero went to Madison Square Garden for a Knicks/Nets game. His schtick was summarily rejected by the fans there, leading to him being carried and thrown from the stadium, his false leg detached. Suddenly, for whatever reason, he was no longer whole. He lost something that night in MSG, something that was irrevocable. He told ESPN he hoped to be at full mental strength “by the All-Star Break” in February, yet he attended another Nets game on Friday. Then, on Saturday, he jumped out of the second-story window of his parents’ house in Queens. He died on Sunday.

His birth name was Jeffrey Vanchiro, and, toward the end, he said he felt more like “Jeffery Vanchiro” than he did the boisterous, dancing alter ego he had created for himself in Gamblero. For whatever reason, he felt like he had lost his identity, and now the Nets have lost part of theirs.

Vanchiro may not have been the team’s official mascot, but he cared about the Nets as much as anyone, the players and front office personnel very much included. Three years in, we in Brooklyn are still not quite sure what the Brooklyn Nets are, as a franchise. Jeffrey Vanchiro, for better and worse, knew from day one.

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