Sunday, June 02, 2002

O'Brien thinks the Nets will win NBA title



By CHRIS SHERIDAN
AP Basketball Writer

        BOSTON — Before delving into the details of how the New Jersey Nets went from the draft lottery to the finals in just one year, a few parting words from the coach who began his summer vacation Saturday.

        When reading those words, try to remember that Boston coach Jim O'Brien is a man who chooses his words carefully.

        “I think they will bring the NBA championship back East. They're that good of a basketball team,” O'Brien said. “I think the West is in for a rude awakening.”

        Memo to the oddsmakers in Vegas: When determining exactly how much of an underdog the Nets should be in Game 1 against the Lakers or Kings, keep in mind the comments of the Celtics' head coach.

        What was clear to O'Brien and anyone else who watched the Eastern Conference finals was that the Nets have too much talent and too many offensive options to be written off as an automatic runner-up.

        “Nobody's going to give us a chance,” Jason Kidd said.

        While the Kings and Lakers prepared for Game 7 of the Western Conference finals Sunday, the Nets were enjoying a day of sunshine back home in the Garden State.

        New Jersey was considered Siberia East in the NBA for many, many years, it's proximity to the bright lights of New York City measured in two ways: 8 miles as the crow flies, but light years away in terms of how the brightly the spotlight shines.

        A trade to the Nets was viewed as a trip to the dentist, except that the Novocain never wore off at the Meadowlands. The arena was usually at least half-empty, the logo and uniforms were as bland as the nickname, the local apathy was so prevalent that the Nets were mixed somewhere among the MetroStars and the Brooklyn Cyclones in the local pecking order.

        “There's a history, but I wanted to find out on my own,” Kidd said. “The turnpike and the airport doesn't give New Jersey its due.”

        Kidd joined a team loaded with former lottery picks that, because of injuries, chemistry issues and every other conceivable ailment, had never meshed.

        Keith Van Horn, once the overall No. 2 pick in the draft, had gone into a shell trying to coexist with Stephon Marbury.

        Kenyon Martin, the No. 1 pick in the 2000 draft, had broken his leg again.

        Kerry Kittles, the 8th overall pick in 1996, had been sidelined for a season by major knee surgery.

        On opening night against Indiana, a crowd (we use that term loosely) of 8,749 was on hand. For their next three home games, the Nets drew 6,532, 5,277 and 5,631.

        “I thought the guys, a lot of them, weren't given a chance yet,” Kidd said.

        The NBA Finals begin Wednesday night in Sacramento or Los Angeles, with Game 2 next Friday night. After that, the series shifts to East Rutherford — known variously as The Swamp, Exit 16A, the New Home of the Old Penn Station or Jimmy Hoffa's reputed final resting ground.

        A pair of ABA championship banners hang from the ceiling of the Meadowlands, but those titles came when the team played in Long Island, N.Y. and had the most exciting player of his generation, Julius Erving.

        The Nets have gone through countless identity changes in the years since, switching uniform designs and slogans almost as often as they changed personnel.

        Just a hunch, but it would not be surprising if an archaeological dig through the bowels of the arena unearthed a box full of forgotten “Get On Board The Power Train” T-shirts.

        Of the 400 or so players listed in the current NBA register, a total of 35 have spent time with the Nets.

        Current NBA coaches Maurice Cheeks, Phil Jackson and Rick Carlisle were once with New Jersey. NBA referee Leon Wood played for the Nets.

        Darryl Dawkins, Tiny Archibald and Bob McAdoo were accidental Nets. David Benoit, a teammate of Yao Ming's on the Shanghai Sharks, was a Net. Journeymen Chris Gatling, Johnny Newman and Chucky Brown, the original Cliff Robinson, the unforgettable Ralph Simpson (no, not Ralph Sampson), someone named Yvon Joseph — all of them were Nets.

        It's sort of the NBA version of Midway Airport in Chicago — sooner or later, you might have to change airplanes there. The only guarantee is that it will be dank and unpleasant.

        “There's nothing we can do about the past,” Van Horn said. “In the past, we didn't have this quality of a team. We didn't have the guys on the court that we wanted to have on the court, plagued by injuries and what not.”

        The scene following Game 6 in Boston was smiley and surreal. The Nets walked around in a collective daze following their 96-88 victory over the Celtics, looking as though even they could not believe how quickly and drastically their fortunes had changed.

        A year ago, the Nets won 26 games. A year and a half ago, the best over-under bet was on which day they would sign Mark Hendrickson to a 10-day contract.

        “I never imagined,” said Lucious Harris, who along with Van Horn is the longest-tenured member of the Nets, joining the team in a 1997 trade with Philadelphia.

        “I knew we'd be good, but to get to the finals in one year (after acquiring Kidd from Phoenix), I didn't think we would do that,” Harris said. “It's just tremendous. I'm speechless.”

       



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