- Adrian Wojnarowski
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The last line of old-time loyalists are still seething. They're canceling season tickets and vowing that they can no longer take it. They're done with the Nets. For so many on the Jersey-side, the circus can't leave town fast enough. Between now and new owner Bruce Ratner's desperate dash to Brooklyn, the Continental Arena stands promise to resemble the pre-Mona scenes out of the Fish That Saved Pittsburgh.
"The ship be sinkin'," one Nets employee laughed, remembering the words of ex-Net Michael Ray Richardson, who actually uttered that famous line as a member of the Knicks.
Of course, Michael Ray works for the Nuggets now, just like the dear, departed Kenyon Martin, the object of obsession for Jersey fans. When Ratner let the best power forward in the East escape to Denver for three draft picks and a world of heartache, he let leave something that the Nets had struggled through seasons of laugh track-losing to acquire: An identity.
For the past three years, the Nets had been something to see in the Swamp, the Big Three of Martin, Jason Kidd and Richard Jefferson turning into something successful, something special, something that everyone wanted to so desperately to hold tight for the franchise. These are strange, sad days surrounding the organization, a pall hanging over the East Rutherford offices that won't dissipate until Ratner moves them out of Jersey for good.
Yes, the Nets could still make the playoffs next year. It won't matter. Nobody will care.
Maybe fans will calm down, come back to watch Kidd and Jefferson this season, but it sure doesn't seem like it. Ticket prices were raised, and the product severely lessened. People could've lived with Martin wanting to leave. Fans were used to that in Jersey. Yet, Martin wanted to stay. He wanted to play there.
No, the Nets lost a lot of hearts with one. Maybe most of all, Kidd's. Ratner tore that out of the franchise, and this team will lay off Exit 16W of the Jersey Turnpike just bleeding until he gathers everything up and whisks them over to Brooklyn.
All around the franchise morale has bottomed out, and it is just a matter of time until everyone responsible for the franchise's rise out of the rubble has exited. It was inevitable somebody would stop signing the checks in Jersey, where attendance was spare and revenue streams dry. Past ownership had been willing to take losses to spend for Dikembe Mutombo and Alonzo Mourning, but Ratner's mission isn't championship basketball, but a personal windfall with a billion dollar development deal in Brooklyn. The Nets happened to be the means to the end, and it's clear every expense will be spared in the final seasons in Jersey.
After next year, there's a good chance that the two-time Eastern Conference champion Nets will have been disassembled, beginning with Jason Kidd trying his hardest to work a trade out of town, to Jefferson thinking long and hard on committing to the long-term contract that management wants him to sign, to the architect, team president Rod Thorn, who has one year left on a contract that almost assuredly will expire without him signing an extension.
Kidd is seething. Privately, he warned associates that without Martin, he would desperately want out of the franchise. It won't be easy to trade him with his advancing age (31), astronomical contract and a suspect knee, but they'll be trying. With Jefferson so profoundly influenced by Kidd, it's doubtful that any of that core will stay the course.
So, the Ratner apologists insist, the Nets will have salary cap space next summer. They'll be a player in free agency. They'll have draft picks. Flexibility. All that's wonderful, but those are things that teams with terrific young talent and chemistry don't need for themselves. Those are things for teams that needed to start over, and the Nets had been through that, rebuilt by Thorn, and they still had a chance to be a contender for a long time.
Maybe Thorn can do it again, but it will probably be his successor giving it a shot. The Nets turned back into the Nets again, and one of sports' most tortured fan bases -- even if one of its smallest -- can't take it anymore. To hear them, they're finished with the franchise. They're done spending money on Ratner's Nets. They wish he would've taken them to Brooklyn yesterday.
Adrian Wojnarowski is a columnist with The Record (N.J.) and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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