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Sunday, April 22, 2012

I’ve been a sportswriter for almost 30 years now. I’ve covered everything under the sun, from lawnmower races to the Maccabiah Games, from Little League through high schools and colleges into the pros. I’ve covered the World Series, the Super Bowl, the NBA Finals. You name it, I’ve done it.

Over those three decades, there hasn’t been a franchise I’ve covered more than the New Jersey Nets.

Covering the Nets was among my first professional responsibilities back in 1983, back to the days of Micheal Ray Richardson, Darryl Dawkins, Mike Gminski, Buck Williams and Albert King. Back to the days of Stan Albeck coaching with his high pitched voice. Albeck called me “Colonel” because he had a colonel in the Army that was a big man and resembled me.

It’s safe to say that I’ve covered the Nets more than 500 times over the last 30 years. I even traveled with the team on the road on several occasions for a few years.

Tomorrow night, I will cover my final New Jersey Nets game, as the Nets face the Philadelphia 76ers at the Prudential Center. As everyone knows by now, the Nets will move to Brooklyn for next season and become the Brooklyn Nets. Monday is the last time they will play in the Garden State.

There are some great retrospective pieces in both The Record and the Star-Ledger Sunday morning about the Nets and their 35-year history in New Jersey. It caused me to flash back and recall some of the moments I witnessed during my tenure covering the Nets.

It was an amazing run. I got to hear Dawkins talk about all the names he gave to dunks, talk about Lovetron, the fictional planet he was from. I got to enjoy the wit, wisdom and downright brilliance of Buck Williams, who still may be the nicest guy to ever play professional sports. I got to see my friend Mike O’Koren play for the Nets and later serve as an assistant coach with the team.

I was there when they somehow upset the defending champion 76ers in the playoffs in Philadelphia in 1984. I kept pinching myself, wondering if it was actually happening.

I was there when Richardson failed yet another drug test, banning him from the NBA for good in 1986, pretty much killing the solid run those Net teams of the 1980s enjoyed.

I was there when the late Chuck Daly became the head coach and offered his basketball knowledge on a daily basis, stuff that I just soaked up, and watched him get frustrated having to deal with Kenny Anderson and Derrick Coleman, who uttered the most famous phrase in the team’s history. “Whoop-de-damn-doo.” Derrick Coleman remains one of the toughest people I’ve ever had to deal with in professional sports.

I got to enjoy the wonderment of Drazen Petrovic, who became the most popular player in the franchise’s history, then saw it all end tragically when the sharpshooter was tragically killed in a car accident in Germany. I grieved with everyone else, because anyone who met Drazen loved him like a brother. He was that good of a guy.

I then had to endure the tough years, with guys like Chris Morris (although his show of making half-court shots in pre-game shoot-arounds was amazing) and Stephon Marbury and one bad draft pick after another. I attended practically every single press conference announcing those bad draft picks, seeing the team act with such hope and promise, but watching those positive feelings disappear as soon as those draft mistakes hit the floor.

I was there when Shaquille O’Neal brought down the entire basket at the Meadowlands. Not the rim, the entire basket, the frame, the metal standards. The whole thing. I was there when Bobby Hurley made his triumphant return to the NBA after his near-fatal car accident and was overjoyed to see him back on the court when it all seemed so impossible a year earlier.

I remember the John Calipari-era team, with characters like Sam Cassell, who was “Sammy being Sammy” long before Manny Ramirez. Cassell once used the four-letter F-word as an adjective, adverb, noun and verb in one sentence. Cassell was a true character and that use of the English language was very talented.

I remember dealing with Keith Van Horn, Kendall Gill, Lucious Harris, guys who I became more than friendly with. I had Jack Haley scream at me at Ramapo College because some editor at the Star-Ledger inserted that Haley was “Dennis Rodman’s babysitter,” something I had not written, but it appeared under my name and Haley was livid.

And I will forever remember the close relationship I developed with Jayson Williams, who despite all his legal problems, will forever be a generally wonderful man and someone who went out of his way to help anyone and everyone he ever dealt with. I grieved when Williams fired that shotgun because I still believe two men died that night, the victim Gus Christofi, and Williams himself. I can never repay the loyalty that Jayson gave to me through thick and thin, even through the passing of my brother and the end of my beat coverage of the team with the Ledger.
And the hours spent laughing at Williams’ great stories. They were endless.

I was there in Chicago when that team faced the unbeatable Bulls in the playoffs, but there was so much hope and excitement just making the playoffs.

Then, there was the trade to acquire Jason Kidd and the face of the franchise changing once again. There were the two great playoff runs, the incredible games with the Pacers and Pistons in the playoffs. There were great guys like Richard Jefferson, who I always looked forward to talking to, or even Kenyon Martin, when I wasn’t pissing him off with a tough question.

The Nets made it to two straight NBA Finals, which really was exciting to behold, seeing the Continental Airlines Arena buzzing with excitement.

There were the hundreds of trips to the team’s training facility in East Rutherford for practices, press conferences, you name it.

There’s been the tough times over the last few years, the losing, the patience needed to work with Deron Williams, who shows every day why a good guy like Jerry Sloan got frustrated trying to coach him. You can only write about losing for so long before it gets so incredibly stale.

There have been the friends I’ve made through covering the Nets _ fellow sportswriters, broadcasters, the Nets PR staff, support personnel, even the security people. My relationships with Dave D’Alessandro and fellow Jersey City boy Fred Kerber go back to those early days covering the Nets in 1983. The Nets’ official scorer, Herb Turetzky, has been a steadfast, happy smile all the way.

Some people are now gone. Petrovic, Chuck Daly, sportswriter Eric Mortenson. Four members of those early 1990 teams, namely Petrovic, Armon Gilliam, Yinka Dare and Dwayne Schintzius, have all passed.

After tomorrow night, there won’t be any more games to cover in New Jersey. They will go to Brooklyn. Who knows if I will follow? No one knows what the future holds.

But I will forever embrace the memories I’ve enjoyed covering the Nets over the last 30 years. They’ve been a major part of my life, my career. Those thoughts and memories cannot simply move away, like the team will very shortly.