Nets 1980-81 Team Leaders

December 3, 2009


Chapter One

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)


  1. My first thought was that I thought those early 80s Nets teams were good, but it wasn’t until the next season when Larry Brown came to town, that they turned it around.

    Of course, getting Buck Williams and Albert King in the draft didn’t hurt any.

    The Albert King pick came from Portland, along with another pick (Mike Gminski) and Maurice Lucas for Calvin Natt. A pretty good haul. I just recently got around to reading Halberstam’s “Breaks of the Game” and Portland almost traded Lucas straight up for Natt, but ownership blocked that deal.

    Seeing that deal, it just makes me wonder how much fun it would be if MLB allowed the trading of draft picks. I understand why they don’t, but I don’t agree with it.

    Looking forward to the next entry.

  2. Willingboro (soon to be known as “Birthplace of Josh Wilker”)is really more a Philly town than a Nets town-people are always making that mistake. “They’re from New Jersey, right!” Well, no, not really-North Jersey is really a different kettle of pollution.

    Personally, though, I’m Celtic born and raised. Your boys are your boys, no matter where you live, no matter how bad they get.

    There’s something just tragic about losing at this level. Assuming they eventually win one, they’ll become just another lousy team. But the purity of that 0-whatever mark is beautiful in its own way. Just like a perfect game is doing something as well as it could possibly be done, a winless season is doing something as bad as it could possibly be done.

  3. bjoura:
    Lucas, Gminski, and Albert King for Natt is an interesting deal; I don’t know if I’d declare the Nets an unqualified winner of the deal, as Natt turned out to be more productive for the Blazers than any of those guys were for the Nets. I think Lucas was pretty much cooked by the Larry Brown era, and Gminski and King never developed into stars. (I’m sure I’ll delve more into the beautiful but strangely unrealized game of Albert King as Whoop-De-Damn-Do proceeds; I’ll also surely touch on the twin-engine Knicks-recycled motor of those Larry Brown teams: Sugar Ray Richardson and Sugar Ray Williams.)

    Yes, my South Jersey-bred cousins are certainly Philly phans. My family moved to Hopewell when I was 2, and maybe that’s in Nets country (it’s outside Princeton). But the question is, of course, is anywhere Nets country? (Or is everywhere Nets country?)

  4. I’ve lived in New Jersey for 43 years so I’ll give you my thoughts on the subject.

    New Jersey is basically broken up into 3 areas, North Jersey, South Jersey, and the Jersey Shore area.

    The New Jersey that’s usually depicted in popular culture (The Sopranos) is the Northern part that serves as a suburb of New York. That show was almost 100% accurate as to the depiction of life/people in the northern part of the state.

    Spudrph is right, someone from Willingboro would have been a Sixers fan and wouldn’t identify the Nets as a local team.

    The Nets were never had much of a local following in North N.J. When I grew up people were either Celtic, Laker, Sixer, or Knick fans. They were never able to build a strong fan base in the area. They were a very good team in the ABA but had to sell DR. J. to pay the merger fee then they sucked for about 5 years and they played all the way down in Piscataway until 1981. They had a little success during the early-mid 80’s but only got out of the first round once. They sucked for the rest of the 80’s. They got pretty good with Chuck Daily during the early 90’s, then they sucked for the rest of the 90’s. Then they won the Eastern Conference twice and then Ratner decided he was moving the team to Brooklyn. That was about 6-7 years ago. Now there in a kind of limbo like most of the people in this state.

  5. Josh,

    Hopewell is in Mercer county which is kind of on the cusp of the North/South border. Hopewell is a good 1 1/2 from New York City so it’s not likely than anyone is commuting or works in NY or has any sort of connection to NY on a daily basis. I would say that area leans more towards Philly.

    But your question about “Nets Country” is an interesting point.

    What we typically refer to as “North Jersey” is essentially 6 counties: Morris, Passaic, Bergen, Essex, Hudson, and Union. There are about 4 million people that live in an area about 1200 sq miles. It’s one of the weathiest and poorest areas in the country. Morris is the 9th wealthiest county in the Country. Some towns in Bergen county are among the wealthiest in the country. But on the flip side you have some of the poorest people in the country.

    Then there are the outer counties like Somerset, Middlesex, and Monmouth who identify more with central Jersey and the Jersey shore region. That’s about 1.6 million people.

    Then there are the counties close to Pennsylvania like Warren and Sussex which aren’t heavily populated, about 250,000 people.

  6. So I would say about 75% of the people that live in New Jersey live in the northern portion.

    Part of the problem with people from New Jersey and the identity of New Jersey is it’s so overshadowed by New York City for one and Cities like Paterson and Newark were basically left to ruin during the 60’s-70’s so there is not one central spot where people can focus. There’s just 200 odd towns in the region.

    There’s also a tremendous amount of anger/frustration/tension in this area partly because it’s so densely populated and partly because the cost of living is so high. Also, income disparity and racial/religious conflict add to the daily tensions.

  7. It’s not merely the numbers that say the Nets’ streak is one for the ages. I caught the postgame wrap on SportsCenter last night; there was a clip of Terrence Williams talking about the second quarter — “I mean, givin’ up 50 points in a quarter…. [Williams lapses into a thousand-yard stare] … we’re supposed to be a professional team.” He was on the verge of tears, no shit.

    Then there was this from Chris Douglas-Roberts: “It’s like we’re laying down, we’re weak. It’s a sign of weakness. Teams are going to be coming in and saying, ‘We’ve got the Nets. All you’ve got to do is come out and punch them in the mouth and they’ll give up and go off with their tail between their legs.’ Red Auerbach could coach us — it doesn’t matter.”

  8. I saw some of those Douglas-Roberts quotes, too. I hope that there’s a Nets beat writer capable of chronicling the ruin, like what Times beat writer Joe Sexton did so brilliantly during the Mets’ horrific 1993 campaign.

    A couple updates on the post:
    -I clarified the claim that the 1981 Celtics were the first New England championship team “in my lifetime”

    -Mom Wilker, the art historian, was the first to remark (in an email to me) on the artworld reference in the questions that make up the third to last paragraph of the post.

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