- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 14, 2003

NEW YORK — The New Jersey Nets get no love at the West 4th Street courts.

Around the chain-link fences and iron backboards at this famed basketball venue yesterday, bystanders wearing expensive sneakers, gold chains and brightly colored T-shirts chattered about the rain, the struggling Yankees and Mets and even the New York Knicks’ possible offseason moves.

Everybody knew Game5 of the NBA Finals would take place that night, just a 20-minute bridge-and-tunnel trip to the west. Most didn’t care. After all, it was in New Jersey.

“You going to watch the game?” Derrek Spriggs shouted over his shoulder to four friends, one of them wearing a Jason Kidd jersey from the point guard’s days with the Phoenix Suns.

“No!” they shouted back.

Sure, the Nets are the two-time Eastern Conference champions, boasting one of the NBA’s most exciting lineups. Sure, they’ve got marquee players: Kidd, a backcourt idol to undersized kids across the country, and charismatic forwards Kenyon Martin and Richard Jefferson.

But it’s a simple fact of life in New York, from the Bronx to Staten Island, from Harlem’s legendary Rucker Park to this streetball institution in Greenwich Village: Basketball fans here don’t root for the team across the river.

“That’s a New Jersey team, man,” said the 15-year-old Spriggs, wrinkling his nose in disdain while a fence behind him shook with the force of a dunk. “I might watch them play, but I won’t root for nobody.”

During their consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, the Nets have been chagrined by a lack of fan support. They had only eight sellouts during the regular season and couldn’t sell out their first four playoff games.

But the Nets shouldn’t look across the river for help. New York fans like New York teams — even when they’re as bad as the Knicks, who finished five spots behind the Nets in the Atlantic Division.

“I couldn’t root for the Nets,” said Errol Winston, a transplanted New Yorker who was in Manhattan for a visit. He eyed a Kidd throwback jersey at Modell’s Sporting Goods on 42nd Street but decided it was too expensive.

“I like the old uniforms, but the Knicks are my team. The Nets are suburban.”

New Jersey’s inferiority complex has deep roots. In 1999, Coney Island native Stephon Marbury let the Minnesota Timberwolves know he’d like to be traded to New York — so they sent him to New Jersey.

“It’s like I’m home, but I’m not home,” Marbury said then. He spent three frustrating years with the Nets before they acquired Kidd by shipping him to Phoenix.

Nobody at the West 4th courts even seemed to know the Nets once called New York home. After an inaugural ABA season as the New Jersey Americans, the New York Nets spent nine seasons on Long Island, winning two ABA championships with Julius Erving leading the way. After their first NBA season, the team moved to New Jersey in 1977.

The Nets surprised their fans in Game5 by wearing throwback jerseys from their ABA days. The nationwide retro craze is particularly popular on the streets of New York, where New Jersey’s old jerseys are the most visible thing about the Nets.

But even at the height of the most successful two-year run in franchise history, the Nets are still starving for attention nationwide and in the metropolitan area. These finals have received the lowest television ratings in 20 years — and the numbers are conspicuously low in New York City.

The Nets couldn’t even make the back pages of the New York tabloids Thursday after tying the series at two games apiece: Their thunder was stolen by the Yankees, who couldn’t get a hit against six Houston Astros pitchers. Yesterday they were kept off the back page again — this time by the Mets’ firing of general manager Steve Phillips.

Several blocks from West 4th at the Seravalli playground, just one man was shooting hoops — and he wore a Knicks T-shirt.

On East 4th Street, Darrell Watson was the only person in sight with any interest in the finals. The 41-year-old wore a raincoat over a Nets jersey with Kidd’s name and No.5 on the back, saying he bought it for the finals.

“I’m a Knicks fan, but this month I can be a Nets fan,” Watson said. “I like Kidd and KMart.”

But Watson draws the line at apparel, saying he probably wouldn’t make the short trip to East Rutherford for a game.

“I don’t even go to Brooklyn unless somebody is chasing me,” he said with a grin.

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