Not long ago the New York Nets were the court jesters of the American Basketball Association. It was not just that the team remained hilariously inept long after many other ABA clubs had grown to respectability—New York was a poor team right up to last season—it was more than that. If the Nets were bad, the places they played were worse. This made for a dynamite combination, surefire to keep fans away in droves. But now there is a new sort of New York explosion. Three months ago the Nets moved into a big new arena and. suddenly, they have become good enough to make the playoff finals. Just as abruptly, their fans have begun fighting to buy tickets. And now it is the Nets' turn to enjoy a bit of the hilarity. They are court-jesting all the way to the bank.
Some of the credit for the teams turnabout can be attributed to the fore-sightedness—and heavy pocketbook—of President Roy Boe. And some must go to the citizens of Long Island's Nassau County, who paid for the Nassau Coliseum in which the Nets now play. And some more belongs to General Manager-Coach Lou Carnesecca, who swept out all the old Nets and brought in a new roster of eager, young ones. Only two of the present players are over 25 years old and only two of them have been with the team as long as three seasons.
While the current Nets appreciate the plush surroundings of their new arena. none of them have been around long enough to remember just how bad the bad old days were. One of their rivals does. Before he was traded to the Kentucky Colonels two years ago, Walt Simon was a charter member of the Nets' franchise, right back to the ABA's first season, 1967-68, when the team was known as the New Jersey Americans and played in an armory in Teaneck where the games were scheduled between military drills.
"I'm from Harlem," Simon recalls, "and guys from uptown would come to me that first year and say, 'Man, I hear you're playing for that new team in Tea-neck. That's great! Hey, by the way, where is Teaneck? In Connecticut?' That year we had to shift a playoff game to the Commack Arena way out near the end of Long Island. But the game hail to be forfeited and we were knocked out of the playoffs because there were holes between the floorboards big enough for a sneaker to fit in and screws were sticking up all over the place.
"They got the floor fixed, changed Our name to New York Nets and scheduled all our games for Commack the next season. Now, I was brought up going to Madison Square Garden. You know: huge crowds full of those rich guys from the garment center wearing silk suit, smoking big cigars and carrying on with girls who look like their daughters. Out in Commack what fans we got drove to the games in trucks. Some of the women wore overalls.
"We moved the next year to the Island Garden, which was a little better. Still, the locker room had nails stuck in the wall to hang your clothes on and there were only two shower heads for the whole team. You didn't dare flush the toilet if someone was showering. You'd scald him. That was our dressing room; you should've seen the one for the visitors."
The main arena was not much better. Located behind a drive-in restaurant and used at various times as an indoor amusement park and a site for wrestling matches, the Island Garden looked best suited for cockfights.
Through those early seasons the team rarely drew more than 1.000 paying customers per game, which was fair enough. The Nets' play was right down to the level of the surroundings. In the ABA's first two seasons the team finished last. The current year was the first in which its record climbed over .500—it was .524.
Until two years ago New York never had signed a college draft choice of any significant ability. It was the consequences of failing to get one of them, Lew Alcindor, that mark the beginning of the team's rise. The ABA had always recognized that a strong New York franchise was crucial to its success—and with that in mind the league assigned the draft rights for Alcindor and the money to sign him to the Nets. Smarter heads in other ABA franchises had conducted a study (including sending psychologists disguised as reporters into the UCLA locker room to interview Alcindor) on the best strategy to ensure that the towering center would play in the ABA. Their report said that Alcindor was intelligent, honest and publicity-shy. Since Lew had already announced he would make his decision on the basis of a single offer from each league, the study recommended that the Nets present their best deal at the start. Ignoring the advice, New York Owner Arthur Brown and ABA Commissioner George Mikan decided instead on a grandstand play. They offered Lew a cashier's check for $1 million and grandly displayed it to the press. The NBA countered quietly with a far more lucrative and sophisticated contract, and Alcindor signed with the NBA. About a month later Brown sold the Nets to Boe, and Mikan later "resigned" from the ABA.
Boe, then 38 years old, had made a quick fortune when his women's apparel company popularized the wraparound skirt. He originally bought his franchise, as many wealthy businessmen do, as a lavish toy. But within two months of the purchase he realized the team was too expensive and time-consuming to operate as a hobby. So he quit the clothing business and took over full-time direction.
"If I had realized then how tough the next two years were going to be, I wouldn't have gotten into this," Boe said last week. "They were the worst years of my life."
In the first 24 months Boe owned the franchise it lost $2½ million, which you would need a lot of wraparound skirts to cover. But despite the heavy dollar drain, he set about preparing for the day when he would have a good team and a good arena. It was not easy. Politicians and civic leaders kept pointing out that the folks of Nassau County were first class and the Nets definitely were not—and that it might be best to hold out for an NBA expansion franchise. Boe decided to convince the fans otherwise. Even though the Nets sold only 42 season tickets his first season, 1969-70, Boe hired the largest front-office crew in the ABA and sent members out to talk about the Nets to anybody who would listen. Nonplaying staffers made more than 250 speeches on Long Island in the past two years. Players were retained on the payroll in the off-season and they held 250 free clinics for 200,000 children. Convinced that they could never attract the silk suit and cigar crowd away from the Manhattan-based Knicks, the Nets worked to pull entire families of suburban fans into their location, which is smack in the middle of the seven million people who populate Long Island's Nassau and Suffolk counties and the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens.
Since the team moved into Nassau Coliseum three months ago—and thanks to the maturing of the young Nets at the same time—New York's business has boomed. For the third game of their playoff with the Indiana Pacers last Friday night the Nets drew a standing-room crowd of more than 15,000. The revenue from that gate alone exceeded $100,000—about what the Nets grossed the whole first year Boe owned the team. He expects to sell 8,000 season tickets and average 12,000 to 14,000 fans per game next year, perhaps equaling or surpassing the Los Angeles Lakers, presently the second most lucrative franchise in the pros behind the Knicks.
Although the Coliseum will draw lots of fans, the extent of the Nets' financial success will depend on how well they play. New York is a sound club that could lose its series to Indiana—the Pacers led 2-1 after Friday's game—and still rank as the ABA's team of the future. Forward Rick Barry has been a superstar for six seasons and is only 27. Net Guards Bill Melchionni and John Roche are excellent. And there is more power on the way. New York has Marquette dropout center Jim Chones under contract for next year and Princeton's junior guard Brian Taylor is expected to sign soon.
All that talent should put Carnesecca back in a familiar role as a winner. Like many Net fans, Carnesecca broke out of an old ethnic neighborhood in the heart of New York to find success in the suburbs. His father ran a grocery store in the Italian community on Manhattan's East 62nd Street while Lou played association (known everywhere else as touch football) and stickball outside on the pavement. He attended Catholic schools and college in New York and married a girl from across the street. He coached high school basketball in Queens and then moved up to lead St. John's University to five postseason tournaments in his five years as head coach.
Owner Boe was so thoroughly convinced that Carnesecca was the man the Nets needed that he hired him almost immediately after buying the team—even though Carnesecca insisted on remaining at St. John's to finish out the last year of his contract. In an era when coaches and players both seem reads to move at the drop of a quill pen, Carnesecca's refusal to leave St. John's was unusual but consistent. He is adamant about old loyalties, persistent in his discipline and unforgiving of himself.
As a college coach he was renowned for his wild antics during games—back flips, duck walks, slithering on his belly—all moves that never failed to surprise him when he saw the game movies. By the end of a 25-game college schedule, he was little more than a blob of jelly. His adjustment to the pros has been every bit as difficult as that of his young players. No longer does Carnesecca do acrobatics, but he is constantly up and down, bobbing and weaving in front of the bench. "I had to come to grips with myself," he says. "I couldn't possibly punish myself over the 100 games we play a year in the pros and stay healthy."
"He's a lot calmer now than he used to be, but still nobody will sit next to him on the bench," says Net Center Bill Paultz, who played for Carnesecca in college. "He's always getting up, moving around and blocking your view so you can't see the game. And if you're next to him when he's sitting he'll hit you hard or jump on your foot and won't even know he's done it."
Inside his somewhat tamed exterior the little gremlins that have always pressured Carnesecca are still performing their strange dances, he admits. But last week they were doing more of a waltz than a stomp. "For once it's a little easier." he said. "We want to win the playoffs for sure, but we can't be too disappointed if we don't. We've come much farther than we could have expected." So far in so many ways, in fact, that for this once the Nets could be losers and still have the biggest laugh.
BEHIND IMPASSIONED play of Star Rick Barry and beneath anguished look of Coach Lou Carnesecca runs a current of happiness.