The turn-of-century New Jersey Nets fought their way into a sweep at the hands of Michael Jordan. It was supposed to be the start of so much more.
A veteran contributor representing the state of Illinois. An interior prescience capable of hauling in double-digit rebounds in his sleep. A contributor who went by the name of Michael.
We, the sports-loving public, have been famished of live content in the wake of the current health crisis. ESPN and Michael Jordan have offered addicting morsels in the form of The Last Dance, an ongoing decalogue centered on the endeavors of Jordan’s final championship team, the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls. Six parts have aired thus far, with another pair of one-hour portions coming in their customary Sunday night spot this coming weekend (9 p.m. ET, ESPN).
Plenty of the team’s triumphs were well known prior to the documentary’s airing. Among the contests covered thus far was a come-from-behind win in Los Angeles in November, literally shutting out the Clippers in a double-overtime session. Scottie Pippen had a double-double in his fifth game back while Jordan put in 45 in a nationally televised win over Charles Barkley.
The most recent segments opened with a flashback to Jordan’s takeovers of Madison Square Garden, where he earned All-Star Game MVP honors before torching the Knicks for 42 in his old sneakers in a 102-89 win, his last Manhattan visit as a Bull.
Fans of the Nets and their current Brooklyn incarnation will not be spared from Chicago carnage. The latest episodes end with Jordan and NBC’s Ahmad Rashad entering United Center for the Bulls’ quarterfinal playoff tilt with the Nets. Chicago’s victory that night was a sign of things to come, as they took the series in quick 3-nil fashion.
As the Bulls mowed down the competition, the rest of the conference spent their time in de facto hibernation, waiting for the thaw that was Jordan’s incoming retirement. Who would rise to take take the Bulls’ throne? It could’ve been the perpetual bridesmaids from Manhattan, Miami, or Indianapolis, the Knicks, Heat, and Pacers being constant victims of Jordan’s mastery. It could’ve been Milwaukee or Philadelphia, armed with the talents of respective rising stars Ray Allen and Allen Iverson.
It could’ve well been the New Jersey Nets.
Slaying the Dragon
The edge of the millennium was an interesting time in Garden State basketball. Its final decade featured three straight playoff appearances under Chuck Daly in the early going (1992-94), but he resigned after matching first-round exits (the last being a four-game fall to the eventual Eastern champion Knicks). By that time, toxicity reigned in Jersey. Presumed character issues reigned on the roster in the form of Derrick Coleman, Dwayne Schintzius, and Benoit Benjamin.
Sports Illustrated made Coleman the literal poster child of the NBA’s supposed problem of self-centered athletes. The cover of a late January 1995 issue featured Coleman’s face accompanied by the actual headline of “Waaaaaaah!!”.
So toxic was the Nets’ reputation that management was planning a rebrand, filing trademarks under the name “New Jersey Swamp Dragons”. Daly’s resignation reportedly stemmed from being exasperated from the “knuckleheads that populated his roster”, according to Fred Kerber of the New York Post.
A rebrand to shed the apparently cursed Nets label was understandable at that point, especially as it had worked their Meadowlands-co-tenants. A transformation into the New Jersey Devils was rocky (pun intended) at first for the Colorado Rockies hockey club, but the team became one of the most recognizable faces of turn-of-the-century ice antics under their new, localized emblem.
Extreme Makeover, Jersey Edition
A makeover awaited the Nets instead. They ditched their red, white, and blue aesthetic for a new scheme dominated by navy and gray. Red lingered as a supporting shade. Coleman and fellow star Kenny Anderson would never don New Jersey’s new jerseys, each traded to Philadelphia and Charlotte respectively during the 1995-96 campaign (the latter of back-to-back 52-loss seasons).
It was the first of many, many visits to the transaction log for the Nets. A full list of the transactions over the ensuing two years would rival the length of a young adult novel, so we’ll cover the major ones. The period’s drafts added not only rookies Kerry Kittles and Keith Van Horn, but veterans Cage and Lucious Harris came in a trade for the latter (in exchange for 1997’s seventh pick, Tim Thomas). Former NBA champion Sam Cassell was added in a trade with Dallas, one that also brought over reserve Chris Gatling. Veteran guard Sherman Douglas was added ten days before the 1997-98 season began.
Brought in to oversee the operation was head coach John Calipari. The practitioner of the dribble drive was already used to success at the Nets’ Meadowlands home, then known as Continental Airlines Arena. He previously guided the University of Massachusetts Minutemen to the 1996 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament’s Final Four, which was held at the arena two months before Calipari took the job. Calipari’s first year was a 26-win slog from a team struggling to get its land legs. It was marked with controversy from Calipari, whose tough style got on players and he was later fined for referring to a reporter as a “(expletive) Mexican idiot”.
But thanks to a pair of relative old men, the Nets had something to build on. Rony Seikaly certainly saw it. The veteran center joined the Nets in February 1998 after a trade with Orlando. The Syracuse alum made it clear that the Nets were one of the team he wanted to go to. “The most important thing is that this is an up-and-coming team,” Seikaly said, per Marty Dobrow of The Daily Hampshire Gazette. “There’s no doubt about that. This is a team that has a chance to win. I don’t know if (Calipari’s) a magician or a miracle maker, but he’s definitely turned this franchise around. I can’t remember the last time when everybody wanted to be a New Jersey Net.”
Meet the Vets
By the time the fateful meeting with the Bulls arrived, only two leftovers from the 1995-96 squad, Gill and Williams, partook in the series. T
he story of Williams is tragic on both a basketball and a personal level. Success in the metropolitan area would’ve been pure poetry. Like Calipari, Williams was a local basketball legend long before he made it to East Rutherford. His high school days were spent at Christ the King Regional High School in Queens (future stomping grounds of hoops legends like Tina Charles, Sue Bird, Chamique Holdsclaw, and Lamar Odom) before starring at St. John’s. He began his career in Philadelphia but was dealt to the Nets for picks days before the 1992-93 season.
Williams struggled to make a name for himself at the onset of his career. He was situated behind veteran Armen Gilliam in both Philadelphia and New Jersey. The two would later compete behind an aging Rick Mahorn for playing time behind Coleman in the Garden State.
But with Coleman gone and Mahorn going on a reunion tour in Detroit, Williams took over the four-spot in the Nets’ starting lineup in Calipari’s first year at the helm. Over the first 16 games of the 96-97 season, Williams would go on haul in an average of 16.1 rebounds. His antics were overshadowed by Dennis Rodman‘s Chicago arrival (playing a major role in the Bulls’ then-record 72 wins the year before), but Williams was making a name for himself as a rare silver lining for the woebegone Nets.
By the end of November, Williams was actually outrebounding Rodman in terms of average. The magnum opus came at the close, when he put in 28 points and 24 rebounds in a win over Clippers. Alas, what became an all-too-familiar foe rose up in the form of injuries. Williams missed literally half the season, including March and April’s games entirely. It was, in fact, an injury that ended his career, suffering a broken leg after colliding with Stephon Marbury during the shortened 1999 campaign.
Legal issues too hampered Williams, including a highly publicized 2004 incident where Williams was charged with manslaughter in the accidental death of limousine driver Costas “Gus” Christofi. He would serve 27 months in prison for the incident. Since then, Williams has remade a name for himself running a rehab center in Jupiter, Florida, several years after fellow metropolitan sporting legend Curtis Martin and Charles Oakley convinced him to undergo the process himself. “I’m not here to try to win everyone back anymore,” Williams told Brian Niemietz of the New York Daily News last December. “I have done everything a man is supposed to do and things a man isn’t supposed to do in his life and most of the things I’m embarrassed and ashamed about. I’m not trying to impress anyone. I’m just comfortable with what I’m doing now.”
In the same interview, Williams revealed that the Nets still hold a special place in his heart. “If they were in Timbuktu, I’d love the Nets and be loyal to them. They have moved on from me. I have never moved on from them.”
Gill arrived too late to partake in what became the Nets’ previous attempts at glory days, but he knew what it was like to fight in an uplifting basketball cause. He entered the league as 1990’s fifth overall pick to the infantile yet reeling Charlotte Hornets. First team All-Rookie honors awaited him, and by year three he was helping the Hornets take down the Boston Celtics in Charlotte’s first postseason berth. The Hornets dealt him to Seattle that offseason, but heartbreak awaited. The SuperSonics won 120 games in Gill’s two-year Pacific Northwest tenure, but lost in the first round in back-to-back years.
By the time Gill’s New Jersey tenure began, he was at a bit of a crossroads. He briefly returned to Charlotte, but the Hornets swapped him for Anderson after Muggsy Bogues got hurt. An injury of his own limited Gill to only 11 games in his first Nets season. Under Calipari, Gill enjoyed a full 82-game slate during the 96-97 campaign. He led the team with 21.6 points per game and tied with the rookie Kittles for lead in steals (1.9). Laden with youth, Gill and Williams would wind up becoming the straw that stirred New Jersey’s drink.
Net What You Were Expecting
Expectations were relatively low entering the 1997-98 season. Sports Illustrated, for example, placed the Nets dead last in the Atlantic Division in their NBA preview. But the Nets immediately began to defy expectations, winning their first four games, including their Halloween opener at Continental against the future conference finalists from Indiana.
The second bookend of the four-game sandwich was another win over a conference contender, as the Nets topped Miami by 12 in East Rutherford. Ending action that night (November 7), the Nets were the only undefeated team left in the Atlantic Division and one of three left in the league overall (alongside the Atlanta Hawks and Los Angeles Lakers).
The early streak got the good vibes flowing early. New Jersey had failed to string three wins a row together throughout the entirety of the 96-97 season. ‘This is the first time in the six years I’ve been here that every time we step on the court, I feel we’ve got a chance to win,” Williams told Jason Diamos of the New York Times prior to the win over the Heat. “It isn’t like last year, where St. Peter himself had to come down and touch us on the head to win a ball game.”
Obviously, no one was expecting the Nets to go full 1972 Miami Dolphins, so losses soon followed. It was in fact Jordan who ended hopes of a perfect season, as the Nets went right from their win over the Heat to United Center, where bench efforts from Steve Kerr and Toni Kukoc doomed them to a 99-86 defeat.
Nonetheless, they were still working at a respectable 10-5 record when November ended.
Turbulent Flight to Chicago
Roller coaster endeavors ensued throughout the season. The team endured five different streaks of at least three consecutive wins or losses. Little victories emerged here and there. Williams took another step forward and reached his first NBA All-Star Game at Madison Square Garden, becoming the first New Jersey representative since Coleman and Anderson each went to the 1994 edition in Minneapolis.
The game was better known for the duel staged between Jordan and Kobe Bryant, but Williams earned 10 rebounds in the Eastern side’s 135-114 victory. Two days prior, Van Horn had a double-double in the Rising Stars Game. Even if they weren’t able to keep pace with their perfect beginning, some began to take notice of what was happening in New Jersey. Among the most impressive stanzas was a 106-95 January road win over the Lakers that saw Van Horn scored 30 after Williams was ejected for two technicals “(The Lakers) are one of the best teams in the NBA. I think it’s a respect game. Nobody in L.A. knows about us,” Van Horn told Diamos. He later commented that he felt it wasn’t just a personal standout game…he was pleased how the team came together. ”It wasn’t really a personal coming-out; it was the team.”
The last of the aforementioned winning streaks was a five-game journey that began with a win over the Knicks on April 4 (Kittles blocked Charlie Ward‘s would-be tying shot in the dying the seconds). After the fifth win in Toronto just over a week later, the Nets (42-36) held the East’s seventh playoff spot and were four games up on chasers from Orlando and Washington. All they needed was was one more to capture their elusive playoff berth. It nearly never came.
A rematch with the Raptors gave the Nets a chance to clinch at Continental, but a game-winning three-pointer from Doug Christie denied them such a happily ever after. Back-to-back road losses then ensued, including a crucial mishap in Orlando (coached by Daly) narrowed the gap to a mere single game. A sudden win streak in the nation’s capital also put the Wizards in prime position, tied with the Magic and a game behind the reeling Nets. The Nets already had plenty to be proud of. Their 42nd win already ensured the franchise’s first winning record since 1994.
But the team knew they were capable of more. Mere history toward the winning record, i.e. mediocrity, wasn’t enough. Despite the losing, the Nets did control their own destiny going into the final day of the season. They squared off with a Detroit Pistons team that was going through a disappointing year and probably was determined to take anyone down with them.
Adding to the Nets’ plight was that they were missing the contributions of Williams and Cassell, each unable to play due to injuries. “Truly when you want to find out about your team, you put them in these situations,” Calipari said, per Steve Popper of The Times, going into the Detroit finale. “Now, who’s who? Where are we? We’re going to find out.” Much like David Wells would do at Yankee Stadium less than a month later, however…Kendall Gill was perfect.
With Detroit holding a three-point lead at half time, Gill took matters into his own hands. 14 points in the third quarter came flawlessly in the form of 4-of-4 shooting from the field and 6-of-6 from the charity stripe. New Jersey wound up winning the quarter by a 36-23 tally and then put the Pistons to bed in the fourth. A 16-8 run over the final five minutes, capped off by a Kittles triple, was enough to send the Meadowlands into hysterics, as the Nets emerged with a playoff berth and a 114-101 victory. “‘I told you pressure makes diamonds,” Gill said to Popper in the postgame. ”Everybody was a diamond today. This is a big step. This team should go to the playoffs and further every year for many years to come now. Now that we have a taste, now that we know how to get there. This is what it’s all about and everybody should learn from it.”
Running With the Bulls
Anyone who has seen 30 seconds of The Last Dance could understand why the Nets weren’t favored against Chicago. Nonetheless, they weren’t going to just rollover. Gill, after all, was on the wrong end of one of the most improbable scenarios in NBA history. His 1994 SuperSonics became the first top-seed in NBA history to fall to an eight, as Dikembe Mutombo‘s Denver Nuggets pulled off the five-game upset.
Time will tell if the next episodes of The Last Dance give it its due, but the Nets gave Chicago all they could handle over two nights in the Windy City. Game 1, in fact, required overtime. A most nonchalant affair, with Chicago maintaining a steady lead throughout. But through the unlikely heroics of Gatling, the Nets provided free basketball.
Though Williams played, Gatling got the majority of interior minutes. He cashed in on his opportunity with a 13-point showing in the fourth quarter that planted a seeds of an upset in the basketball world’s minds. A jumper from 15-feet even gave the Nets a lead with 93 seconds to go. New Jersey even had a chance to win it after Jordan missed the second of two free throws in the final minute. Kittles and Kukoc, however, each missed jumpers to put the game into overtime. True to form, Jordan atoned for his prior mishaps by scoring the final five Chicago points, beginning with a dunk after he swiped the ball from Kittles that gave the Bulls the lead for good.
The overtime thriller, and, to a lesser extent, the 96-91 loss in Game 2 were seen by some as precursors to something bigger…a la Jordan’s efforts for the 1986 Bulls, highlighted by his historic 63-point effort in Boston against the final championship team of the Celtics’ last dynasty. MJ took no chances when the series shifted to East Rutherford. He put up 38 points (alongside 23 off the bench from hug-seeker and future Net Scott Burrell) in Chicago’s 116-101 win to close out the series.
What Net Wrong
Post-mortem, hope was nonetheless high for the Nets’ future showings, even as early as the final loss to the Bulls.
Williams said even before the Nets’ elimination that he told Popper that he told Jordan “I hope you stay and I hope you all stay together for another year, because next year we’re going to run it up your chest”.
Slam magazine was the biggest professor of New Jersey optimism. Their April 1998 cover featured Cassell, Gill, Kittles, Van Horn, and Williams alongside the declaration “Generation Nets…Champs By 2001. Count On It.” Joe Namath, Slam was not.
Technically speaking, they weren’t too far off…the Nets, after all, won their first Eastern Conference title in 2002. But old-fashioned Nets renovations and more losing awaited in the interim. Only Kittles and Harris got to taste New Jersey-flavored Finals glory, representing both the 2002 and 2003 conference champions.
Some could say that the Nets’ newfound success suffered from poor timing. The NBA’s 1998-99 season was delayed due to an ongoing lockout, one that pushed the season back and eliminated 32 games from the calendar. Training camps were put off until the crisis was resolved. “No one had training camp. You didn’t have a chance to get your rhythm,” Gill recalled in an oral history of the lockout from Thomas Golianopoulos of The Ringer. “Guys didn’t have their timing and the whole game suffers. Williams wasn’t the only one to succumb to injuries in the Nets’ long-term plans. Cassell was likewise injured, not even making it through the first game, a 111-106 defeat in Atlanta.
Williams was likewise involved in physicalities, as Mutumbo broke his nose late in the final stages. Cassell was later traded to Minnesota for Marbury. From there, things only went further downhill. The Nets got revenge in East Rutherford the next night, but a 2-16 streak followed up shortly afterward. Calipari could go years without losing 16 games, but a cramped schedule gave him that tally in just over a month.
Players noted that as the losses became heavier, so did Cal’s practices. “I can remember Cal being more intense, more demonstrative in practices,” Gill said in Golianopoulos’ report. “I think a lot of the players felt like Cal was treating them like they were in college rather than being professionals.
Some of the players, mainly Kerry Kittles and Van Horn, got sick of that.” “We got off to a poor start, and it seemed to spin out of control and then for some reason key players started griping about practices,” assistant head coach Don Casey also told The Ringer. “Cal then practiced sterner and longer to shake out the losses, but I think some of the players interpreted it as payback rather than something that would be helping them.”
The final straw was a 102-76 shellacking at the hands of the Heat. Calipari was fired the next day and replaced by Casey. The Nets slightly recovered to go 13-17 the rest of the way, but Casey lasted only one more before being replaced by Byron Scott.
Perhaps there was writing on the wall about Calipari. He routinely clashed with the media and players alike. Jordan himself wasn’t a fan of Calipari’s styles. One of the most lasting images of the series is Jordan staring down Calipari during Game 3. Calipari’s daughter Dr. Erin Calipari even jokingly brought up the image as lockdown policies began to take effect around the country. Jordan offered Calipari the most backhanded of compliments when asked to explain the staredowns. “I was really just looking at him, seeing how much energy he utilizes in coaching, try to pick up what he’s saying,” Jordan said, per Jerry Bembry of The Baltimore Sun. “It’s pretty fascinating, really. I haven’t played against a guy who runs up and down the court as much as he does, yells and shows so much energy. I admire those players for being able to deal with it.”
As for Gill, he wound up leading the shortened season in steals and even tied Larry Kenon‘s record for most in a game during a surprise April win over Miami. Injuries, however, cost him 56 games over the next two seasons. He departed the Nets upon Jason Kidd‘s historic arrival (the team unable to bring him back with the new salary of Kidd in tow) and spent his final three years with three different teams.
We know by now that New Jersey did eventually recover from the snuffed-out potential in the form of back-to-back appearances in the NBA Finals. Even that, however, wasn’t enough to save the New Jersey moniker, meaning this wasn’t meant to be a study to say that things would’ve gone differently if the Nets built on their 1998 foundation. There probably wouldn’t even be a ten-part documentary about their exploits. But if we’re taking “last dances”, perhaps enough has been said about Jordan and his crew. The group in New Jersey’s final waltz might’ve simply come far too soon to be truly satisfying.
Geoff Magliocchetti is on Twitter @GeoffJMags