¡Fo Reels, Yo! (...and for rants, and for other things too.)

April, 2010
(Part 2 of a 3 Part Series)
the Nets are in the state of flux.  Flux is good after a 12-70 season and the third lowest win total since the NBA switched to an 82 game season over 40 years ago.  Things however will get better.  Maybe not LeBron James better, but maybe.  Either way it can't get worse.  A series of infusions, from a new owner, to a new coach, to new cap space for free agents, to a plethora of new draft picks will only help.  But while the team awaits the many changes to come, they can already wave goodbye to their biggest albatross.  Following an April 12th loss to the Charlotte Bobcats which ended their home season, the Nets are now no longer tied to the worst building in the NBA.  Currently known as Izod Center, before that as the Continental Airlines Arena, before that as the Brendan Byrne Arena, but commonly known as the Meadowlands Arena and even more commonly known as the Swamp, the Nets can now relegate the Meadowlands Mistake to the pages of history.

What most in the "true" crowd of 11,000 lackluster fans who bothered showing up for the arena's last ever NBA game probably did not know however, was that the Mistake was once considered a sort of miracle.  Even league insiders as well as larger than usual amount of media, mostly there for final pot-shots, failed to recognize that almost 30 years ago the arena opened as a can't miss venue.

The backstory behind Jimmy Hoffa's final resting place began long before that, however.  It began in 1965 when New Jersey Governor, Richard Hughes, looked to take advantage of a "white-flight" boom.  He put together a study for a sports complex in the suburbs.  One that would be close enough to attract New York based teams and New York's fan population as well.  Knowing that the bulk of new suburbanites would not want any complex in their backyards, Hughes looked for completely undeveloped land.  In the Hackensack Swamp, he found thousands of undeveloped acres within 10 miles of Midtown Manhattan.  Although the swamp was undeveloped, it was hardly untouched.  The wetlands between the Hackensack and Passaic rivers (both just west of the Hudson River) had long been contaminated by decades of chemical waste.  Highway, commuter and freight train routes built over the area in connecting Manhattan with Jersey's bedroom communities had also left behind miles of garbage.  Spare tires, abandoned cars, even the occasional dead body were sprinkled throughout the marshy greens.

After years of planning, Hughes' successor, William Cahilll, officially announced the creation of the New Jersey Sports and Exposition Authority in 1971.  The independent state agency was put in charge of first cleaning the swamp, and then building over it.  From its inception the project faced inane levels of opposition.  Between new federal regulations aimed at protecting air and water, to pressure from deep pocketed environmentalists, like the Audobon Society, to a very public showdown with New York Governor, Nelson Rockefeller (and Rockefeller's many connections in New York's banking industry) to resentment coming from a few NIMBY groups, Cahill would need an unflinching leader to keep the Meadowlands dream afloat.  He found one in Sonny Werblin. "Sonny, his name rhymes with money" is how Werblin was often described by legendary sports reporter, Howard Cosell.  The line was fitting as just about anything the Brooklyn native touched, turned profitable. 

Werblin's long stints as a music agent, television producer and MCA President were followed with gaining controlling interest of Monmouth Racetrack and later still, the old AFL's New York Titans.  His first move with the Titans was changing their name to Jets.  He also changed their colors from drabby shades of navy and flat gold to a brighter and cleaner looking green and white. Sonny claims that he made the color change because he was born on Saint Patrick's Day.  Leon Hess, then one of Sonny's minority owners, claimed it was done to match the colors of Hess Oil.  Either way, the new colors helped in making the franchise synonymous with big money as the Jets used tons of it to land college football's top names.  None bigger than Joe Namath.  Werblin knew stars and knew he landed the brightest of them when signing Broadway Joe to his team and away from the NFL establishment.

With Namath, Werblin built a team that could usurp the legendary popularity of New York's football Giants.  Prior to his fifth season with the club however, Werblin was pushed out by envious minority owners.  Hess and the others wanted to move out of Werblin's shadow and share in the team's rising popularity.  The former MCA President stepped aside from the mutiny and never looked back.  Even as Hess and the others reaped the rewards of Werblin's work by shocking the world and winning the Super Bowl (sealing the AFL-NFL merger in the process) Sonny had moved on to bigger and better things.

Nothing would be bigger and better than being asked to head the NJSEA in 1971.  Over the next five years Werblin jumped over every imaginable hurdle to make his sports kingdom, his "Disneyland of Sports" happen.  By 1976 the Giants were calling a brand new, universally acclaimed football specific stadium in the swamp, home.  With the stadium came practice facilities, team offices, and new hotel for visitors.  The Jets followed the Giants to the Meadowlands on a part time basis.  Disputes with the Mets over use of Shea had caused Werblin's old team to move all of their exhibition and a two early season regular games to the Meadowlands.  The Jets would move there on a full time basis in 1984, but even before then, the complex had already proved to be an immense success.  Even soccer, still in its earliest stages in this country, proved to be enormously popular at the Meadowlands.  In 1977, behind Pele, the greatest soccer player of all time, and international stars like Franz Beckenbauer, Giorgio Chinaglia and Carlos Alberto, the Cosmos nearly doubled their attendance numbers from when they played at Yankee Stadium in 1976.   

Just north of Giants Stadium, where crowds also came out in droves for concerts and shows, Werblin built Meadowlands Raceway.  The modern track was the area's first to feature a nighttime schedule.  Jockeys could spend their days at the aging New York tracks before racing for higher stakes and larger, post rush hour crowds.

The Meadowlands seemed like a safe haven for sports fans, especially as the City reached its nadir.  Between near bankruptcy, a two day blackout, widespread looting, spikes in crime, a failing subway system, strikes, and the Son of Sam on the loose, New York bordered on implosion.  As Werblin announced plans for a second phase of construction, one which would include an indoor arena, baseball stadium, and aquarium, the gigantic MSG conglomerate wanted in.  Having claimed losses on the Knicks and Rangers, their plan was to keep their own arena as a concert and occasional sports venue, while moving their two pro teams to the Meadowlands.  As early as 1972 MSG had tried using the Meadowlands as leverage to lower taxes on their own building.  By 1977, with Giants Stadium and adjacent racetrack a proven moneymaker, their threats were being taken seriously by the beleaguered city.

The baseball stadium and aquarium would never materialize but Werblin was set on building the greatest of all indoor arenas.  But while the Knicks and Rangers tried pulling one over on the city, they were beaten to the punch by suburbanites from the east.  New York Nets owner, Roy Boe, was in desperate need for a fresh start after selling, Julius Erving, Dr. J, the greatest Nets baller ever, to meet new financial demands.  Like Sonny Werblin during the '60s, Boe had spent the '70s chasing the area's established franchises.  Where as Werblin was attempting to make his Jets as big as the Giants, Boe was looking to make his Nets and Islanders as big as the Knicks and Rangers.  The Nets in particular were trying to emulate the Jets by going after a traditional team from within a brand new, renegade league, the ABA.

Further similarities between Boe and Werblin, the Nets and Jets, or ABA and AFL were merely cosmetic.  Werblin swam in money, Boe sank in debt.  The Jets were marketed to the entire region, the Nets were strictly a Long Island team.  The AFL was able to first hammer out a season ending championship game between their top team and the best of the NFL, the Super Bowl, before then getting the senior league to agree on a full scale merger. ABA franchises slowly died off before obtaining only a partial merger within the NBA.  The Nets were one of the survivors and Boe had thought he was finally on equal footing with the wildly popular Knicks.  In actuality, this was far from true.  The financial cost of paying their way into the NBA, as well as the Knicks' steep territorial rights, forced Boe into selling the Doctor and killed off an already segmented fan base.

Earlier, while still in the ABA, Boe had thought that simply getting his Nets into the brand new Nassau Coliseum would put him on equal footing with the Knicks.  Nice for its time, the Coliseum was built specifically for neighboring suburbanites as a place to go without having to venture the 25 miles to MSG.  Despite drawing decent crowds, there was nothing about the modestly sized Coliseum that could challenge MSG.  An arena at the Meadowlands would be a different story all together. 

Built right off of Route 3, a direct route into the Lincoln Tunnel, the Meadowlands offered quick access into the city while also providing the safety of the suburbs.  Not only did the location offer the best of both worlds but the building was to have a modern design that would stand apart from the utilitarian Garden and spartan Coliseum. Bigger than both venues (much bigger than the Coliseum to be exact) Boe jumped at the chance to play inside Werblin's kingdom.  In July of 1977, Boe announced he would move to the Meadowlands.  He immediately changed the club's name to New Jersey Nets to convince Garden State locals that he had a leg up on the Knicks. He also cut a deal with Rutgers University (coincidentally, Rutgers too was building a brand new college arena on their Piscataway campus) to play there on an interim basis as Werblin built his "can't miss" arena in the Meadowlands.  

Werblin seemed less excited about the deal after finding that Boe was in far greater debt than either of his teams were worth.  As the Nets fell in danger of folding, Werblin, a constant wheeler-and-dealer, began to look at other teams to lease his future building to.  The Detroit Pistons were rumored to be in talks with the former MCA head. The Knicks and Rangers were talking to Werblin as well.  Things grew particularly heated in December when just before the shovels hit the ground to commence work on the new arena, MSG hired Werblin to serve as their corporation's President and CEO. 

Without Werblin in charge of construction, the indoor stadium floundered for nearly four years before completion. This as Werblin's Knicks and Rangers were constantly looking to muscle their way into the kingdom he had created.

Facing bankruptcy and having defaulted on enormous million dollar loans which put both of his clubs in danger of liquidation, Boe was forced to sell.  The Nets were sold to a group headed by Joe Taub, a billionaire with enough political connections to make sure they would not be pushed out of the Meadowlands by the MSG clubs.  Still, it wasn't until Werblin made a deal with Mayor Ed Koch to exempt the Garden of property taxes that the Nets gained status as primary tenants of the Meadowlands Arena.

The arena finally opened in time for the 1982 season and just as Werblin had predicted, it was an instant winner. Although lacking in the type of fan passion that Sports Illustrated wrote about while the Nets played on Long Island, crowd sizes dwarfed anything that Dr. J had seen.  The team instantly became one of the league's top five draws and even outdrew the Knicks during each of their first four seasons at the Meadowlands.  For the 1983 season the Devils (formerly the Colorado Rockies and before that the Kansas City Scouts) joined the Nets at the Swamp.  Even that miserable franchise (dubbed a "Mickey Mouse club" by soft-spoken hockey legend, Wayne Gretzky) drew reasonably well during their opening seasons. 

By the mid 1980s however, as the level of play for the Nets declined to lows not seen since their days at Rutgers, the crowds waned.  As both the Nets and Devils lost, both teams suffered at the gate.  Neither ever finished at the bottom of their respective leagues in terms of attendance but at the same time, neither was ever embraced by the metropolitan area.  Even in North Jersey, where locals better embraced the MSG clubs than their suburban counterparts on Long Island, the Nets and Devils took secondary status to the Knicks and Rangers.

As crowds diminished the new arena began showing its worts.  The building was too big.  Upper bowl seats were too far from the court.  The ceiling was too high.  Crowd noise was easily lost.  The modern design and bright white color appeared too cold.  The building was lacking in any atmosphere.  With a highway splitting it from the stadium and race track, parking was tight.  Worse yet, there was no train service allowing for fans from the city or even Jersey's urban centers, to attend games.  While the stadium and track also prospered due to short seasons and the big events which a weekly NFL game or the yearly harness championship races, the Hambletonian, produced, the arena had no such luck.  Long seasons played during the dead of winter, could not garner crowds on a night-to-night basis.   

The "can't miss" arena whiffed.  

Attendance numbers did grow in the early '90s as after many down years the Nets and particularly the Devils, fielded stronger products.  By then however New York City was experiencing a Renaissance.  The "Summer of Sam" era was long gone.  Crime was down, the economy was growing, subways were graffiti free and both MSG teams were led (from Patrick Ewing to Mark Messier) by Hall of Fame talent.  Although attendance remained adequate at the Swamp, any comparisons to MSG and the celebrity row lining up to see games on 33rd Street, were ridiculous.

Ownership fiascos didn't help matters.  Starting in the mid 1980s Joe Taub and his co-owners (known as the Secaucus 7) almost went out of their way to run the club to the ground.  From infighting, to bizarre coaching changes, to bizarre attempted coaching changes, to silly tie-dyed uniforms, to absolutely horrific draft selections, to putting together the least disciplined team (starring Kenny Anderson, Derrick Coleman, Armen Gilliam, Benoit Benjamin and Jayson Williams) the NBA has ever seen, to attempting to change the team's name to Swamp Dragons, to being caught playing canned crowd noise from the speakers, the Not So Magnificent 7 truly did all they could to make the franchise seem like a joke.  In short it was the exact opposite of the professional environment surrounding the Knicks and Rangers.  As such, fan experience at the Meadowlands Arena (and its many names) suffered by comparison. 

NJ Devils owner, John McMullen, only compounded on the arena's poor reputation.  In 1995, the day after winning the club's first Stanley Cup, McMullen made public plans to move his hockey team to Nashville, Tennessee. McMullen, unhappy with being the arena's secondary tenant, spent the rest of the decade looking to move the team to Hoboken.  By the late '90s, there were no longer any doubts.  The Meadowlands Arena was a mistake. Still big, still more modern than the Garden or the Coliseum, but not nearly as modern as the newer venues which popped up throughout the NBA and NHL in the 1990s, no longer as clean as it once was, the arena and its many changing names, was doomed.

In the summer of 1998, philanthropists, Ray Chambers and Lew Katz, purchased the club from Taub's Secuacus 7. Immediately they announced plans to move the team to Newark as part of an urban renewal project for the forsaken slum.  Eventually Chambers and Katz merged their fledgeling club with the iconic New York Yankees and later added the NJ Devils as well as the YES Network to the family while creating the Yankee-Nets sports empire. Even with all of their money and pull, the empire could not get an arena built in Newark.  For five years suburban politicos fought against giving any state funds to a venue in inner-city, Newark.  For five years the Nets remained stuck in Werblin's cavernous dungeon.  For five years they, to the disappointment of Yankee officials, lost tons of cash in the process.  For five years it appeared as if the Nets, and the money losing Devils, would both be destined to an endless fate inside the Swamp.  Those inside the Yankees camp were particularly sensitive towards money losing ventures and not having local politicians wrapped around their fingers.

As Chambers, who helped build Newark's state of the art NJPAC, failed in gaining momentum from the state for further urban renewal, Katz was left to deal with an increasingly hostile group of Yankee reps.  Eventually, after years of infamous infighting, the empire broke apart.  The bitter divorce gave Bruce Ratner, who had earlier befriended Lew Katz, an opportunity to buy the Nets.  Like Chambers and Katz before him, Ratner came in with plans to move the team to an urban center.  Unlike Chambers and Katz, Ratner's goal was to move them back across the Hudson and East Rivers where he hoped to build a pro court in Brooklyn.  Strong community opposition to a Brooklyn arena, and its accompanying 5 billion dollar office and high rise residential complex, kept Ratner's dreams in limbo for another six years.  

The 2010 season marked the 12th straight one that the Nets would be playing in a home that its owners did not want.  A home that they repeatedly tried replacing.  Finally the 12 year odyssey is over.  The Nets put an end to Werblin's mistake after signing a deal that would allow them to play in Newark on an interim basis before ultimately moving to a completed building in Brooklyn for the 2013 season.  Ironically, after the Yankee-Nets split and after Ratner's takeover of the Nets, the Devils were scooped up by James Vanderbeek.  With enormous help from corrupt Newark Mayor, Sharpe James, Vanderbeek was finally successful in building a modern complex to the blighted but developing North Jersey city for the 2008 season.

Ironically, the Swamp will be replaced by two urban arenas who both look to Manhattan's historic Garden as a roadmap to success.  As suburban teams (even the Islanders are looking to move to Queens) move into urban centers, and as these urban centers become unrecognizable from the Dark Ages of the 1970s and '80s, clubs like the Nets, Devils, and perhaps the Islanders as well, all attempt to distance themselves from their respective pasts.  Pasts which included each aforementioned franchise having once billed themselves as a family fun escape from the city's mean streets.   

In a final twist of irony, the big barn loses its ties to the big leagues just as it sheds it "no where" status.  Much of the already segmented parking lot has now been replaced by an upcoming mall complex.  A new stadium has been built for the Giants and Jets and with it, although 30 years late, a new train line now provides mass transit to the area.  Had the infrastructure around the arena been in place before the arrival of the Nets, perhaps, even with New York City's Renaissance, it never would have been considered such a mistake now.  Perhaps, had Werblin moved the Knicks and Rangers there to begin with, the arena's fate would have been completely different.  Either way, the now mocked building still shared a much greater level of on-field success than MSG had seen during the same time period.  Over the past 30 seasons, the Swamp hosted 4 NHL finals, 2 NBA finals, an NCAA Final Four and many more NCAA regional contests.  This while MSG, completely blacklisted from hosting any NCAA Tourney events, has only hosted 2 NBA finals and one NHL Stanley Cup.

In the end, the Swamp, has experienced a mixed bag of success.  It is easy to laugh along with detractors.  At the same time, title runs by the Nets, Devils and college teams like Seton Hall, as well as hosting some of college's most famous post season games, by schools like Duke and Kentucky, can't be ignored.  The fact that, with a couple of changes to history, it could have become the greatest gem on Werblin's "Disneyland of Sports" crown, can't be diminished.  Once the mall complex, potentially the largest in the country, opens and when and if the arena is converted into a full time concert hall, it might, just might, make good on Werblin's proclamations.  Until then, and even without the Nets, Devils, Seton Hall or NCAA Tournament games, the arena lives on.  Although its history has been checkered, its still not compete.  The Swamp Dragons are thankfully a thing of the past, but the Swamp still has a future.*