Nets 1980-81 Team LeadersDecember 3, 2009
My baseball card collecting days tapered off precipitously in 1981, when I was 13 and bought only a few packs of Topps and, out of curiosity, a pack or two of offerings from one of the new card companies, Fleer. That same year, perhaps casting around for some way to hold on to some semblance of the practice of collecting that had been so central to my childhood, I bought a couple packs of cards featuring the sport that had begun to eclipse baseball in terms of the amount of time I spent playing it. I was still playing Babe Ruth baseball that year, but I was a benchwarmer, and I’d be done with organized baseball the next year; meanwhile, by 1981 I was a couple years into a complicated love affair with playing organized basketball that would limp all the way into my second year in college.
Those couple packs of 1981 cards, which tellingly did not lead to other packs of cards, featured a large number of New Jersey Nets cards, including the team leaders card featured here. I can’t imagine that this glut of Nets excited me. More likely it produced a flicker of dyspeptic recognition. Growing up in Vermont, I was a fan of the New England team, the Celtics, so I was probably hoping for as many of them as possible. The disappointing dearth of Celtics (besides one Gerald Henderson card), coupled with the presence of several New Jerseyites, must have made me wonder if the cards were trying to tell me something about myself. It was probably late autumn when I bought the cards, that gray skeletal span known in Vermont as “stick season.” And there, within the kind of gum-scented packaging that had brightened many a summer Vermont day, one message after another from glum polluted New Jersey. My home.
You see, I was born in New Jersey. I lived there for the first five years of my life before my family moved to Vermont.
In Vermont, I aspired to be thought of as a native of the place I lived in, but I wasn’t. Similarly, I aspired to align myself as closely as possible with the Boston Celtics, who had in 1981 delivered the first championship of any of the New England teams in my lifetime [update: “in my lifetime” is an inaccurate turn of phrase; the Celtics won the last two of the Bill Russell banners in my first two springs, and Hondo and Cowens led them to two more in ’74 and ’76, but even for the last of those championships I was relatively oblivious to basketball, probably because I hadn’t started playing it, and because it wasn’t shown on either of the two TV stations we got reception for, and because the general store in our town didn’t sell basketball cards in the ’70s; I was even more–i.e., completely–oblivious to the successes of the Bobby Orr-era Bruins]. But I knew, deep down, that I was closer at the core of my being to the meaningless garbage time games of the 24 and 58 1980-81 Nets of my home state than the “World Champion” team from a city that I didn’t live in (or even near).
Like me, the Nets began in New Jersey, back in the inaugural ABA season of 1967-1968 (they played the last of their games to sparse gatherings in Teaneck that season as I was experiencing my first weeks of life in Willingboro), then they moved to New York for a few years before drifting back to New Jersey. They seem determined to escape New Jersey, targeting Brooklyn as their new home at some indeterminate time in the future, but in the meantime they are in New Jersey and they are losing.
Oh, my god, how they are losing.
Last night they lost their eighteenth straight game of the year, the longest losing streak to start a season in NBA history and just three away from the record for major American sports set by the Baltimore Orioles in 1988.
But winning streaks are for pussies. Has anyone ever pondered the tough questions during a winning streak? Has anyone stared off into the middle distance weeping? Has anyone imagined sneaking out of town on a bus under the cloak of night to start a whole new life elsewhere? In a winning streak, you try to think as little as possible. You try to narrow your existence to the bright beam of light that by some inexplicable twist of good fortune you are balancing on. In a winning streak, you attempt to will yourself to be as shallow as humanly possible.
But in a losing streak, forget it. In a losing streak you are at the mercy of gods. In a losing streak you barely have the confidence to button your shirt correctly. In a losing streak it’s you against everything. Worse, it’s you against nothingness. The Big Questions appear like the ominous metallic tangle of rendering plants glimpsed through a thinning of a polluted haze.
Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?
I don’t know any answers, but I know about losing streaks. From them I’d hazard to say that it’s later than you think. Maybe we’re already there. Maybe we always have been. Maybe we always will be.
What I’m saying is, welcome to New Jersey.
(to be continued)