Books: The Long and Winding Road to Brooklyn

Greg Hrinya has written the definitive work on the  Nets’ transition from New Jersey to Brooklyn, and it has been a wild five years. There was the season the team won just 12 games, Kris Humprhies and a known socialite, the drama around Deron Williams, Billy King’s reckless trades, and the overriding theme is how the team never lived up to their full potential.

Hrinya’s book is named The 5-Year Plan: The Nets’ Tumultuous Journey from New Jersey To Brooklyn, and the title comes from Nets Prnicipal Owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s declaration that the team would win an NBA championship within five years of his purchase of the team in 2009.
Early on in this book, Hrinya displays descriptive flourishes that make this book a very enjoyable read. He describes the Nets owner as such, “Prokhorov emerged as a sort of messiah for Nets fans. This international man of mystery knew little about American basketball (or the English language, for that matter), but he had a plan. No one was prepared to stand in his way, either. He offered significant wealth and looked like he stepped out of a handbook on James Bond villains – an intimidating, stoic, six-foot-eight leviathan.”

The book begins with the 2009-10 season, the first year that Hrinya, who went to Marist College, began covering the team for

Two anecdotes perfectly describe the 2009-10 season. The first was of one fan promotion the Nets would do at the Izod Center. “The most outrageous came from a partnership with Chipotle Mexican Grill. Between the first and second quarters, the Nets’ acrobats, known as Team Hype, sprinted onto the floor as if running a fast break to catapult wrapped Chipotle burritos into the stands. One night, a launched burrito landed in a section of the press area like a carefully heaved grenade,” writes Hrinya.

Hrinya then describes an open practice the team held at Ramapo College as such, “As thousands of weary college partiers nestled into the confines of their dorm rooms on a Saturday morning, the Nets invaded the campus to almost no fanfare. They struggled to fill the Division III Bill Bradley Sports and Recreation Center, which struggled to fill 1,500 fans. The scarce fans in attendance that October morning in 2009 witnessed a caliber of basketball that left some – at the very least, me – aghast.”

The offseason heading into that 2009-10 season saw the Nets clean house, sending their lone star, Vince Carter, with Ryan Anderson, out in a trade for Courtney Lee, Rafter Alston, and Tony Battie. Hrinya astutely described it like this, “With the Nets floundering and a new ownership regime on the horizon, management decided to start slashing prices like Crazy Eddie in the summer of 2009.”

Early in the season, the Nets hosted the Boston Celtics in a game on November 7, 2009 and this passage sums up Nets games in Jersey perfectly: “With 16,119 fans in attendance, a new phenomenon blossomed for Mikhail Prokhorov’s recent acquisition. Whenever an opposing team of any repute ventured to East Rutherford, that visiting crowd invaded the Nets’ arena like zoo animals at feeding time. A glistening sea of Celtics green blinded the attending media members.”

Hrinya defends the fans for not showing up in Jersey. “Who could blame the New Jersey fan base for abandoning the team? The organization clearly indicated that the Nets would be grabbing a cup of coffee in Newark before moving operations to Brooklyn. The Nets planned to finish the 2009-10 season in the IZOD Center before taking a two-year lease in Newark’s Prudential Center while the Barclays Center in the New York borough underwent construction.”

Nets management, starting with CEO Brett Yormark, promoted the team with an eye to Brooklyn while the team wound down their time in New Jersey, with slogans like “Jersey Strong, Brooklyn Ready.” Hrinya says of this, “Yormark and company were deluded enough to expect Jersey residents to continue supporting a team destined for another state. New Jersey represented obsolescence, while Brooklyn provided global marketing and chic trends. The dim prospects for winning before the move merely added grave insult to a massive wound. The team had one goal: put a winner in the billion-dollar Barclays Center. None of the New Jersey results mattered.”

That is exactly how it played out, as the Nets started the 2009-10 season with an 0-18 record, and Head Coach Lawrence Frank was fired amidst the streak after the 16th loss. Frank routinely only dressed 7 or 8 players a night, as the roster, as weak as it was, dealt with massive injuries.

The Nets stumbled to a historically bad 12-70 record in the 2009-10 season with Kiki Vandeweghe as both the head coach and general manager. When Kiki was dismissed unceremoniously at the end of the season, Prokhorov brought in Avery Johnson to be the new head coach in May 2010. The interesting thing was that he was hired before a new general manager was named, so essentially Johnson got to work with Prokhorov on choosing his new boss. The choice for General Manager was Billy King.

Hrinya pointedly and accurately described King as such, “King looked like a former basketball player with exceptional height and several post-retirement pounds. His pleasant demeanor and overall friendliness made him a good candidate for an NBA negotiator. In all fairness, anyone given the keys to Prokhorov’s basketball kingdom would surely walk around with a smile glued to his face.

“Johnson executed a perfect coup. He cleverly placed a patsy in line to take the fall in cases where things went awry. Which they did. But in the meantime, the Nets hired a formerly disgraced personnel executive who had virtually destroyed the Sixers organization. Many might examine Philadelphia’s situation and credit the Sixers’ success to King, but that thinking ignores significant portions of the story,” wrote Hrinya.

He then goes on to describe all the horrendous moves that King made in Philadelphia, like trading for Chris Webber, who was well past his prime in 2005. King also gave a 35-year-old Dikembe Mutombo a $68-million contract extension in 2001, gave backup point guard Aaron McKie a $35.5 million deal. Eric Snow received $29 million in 1999, and then an extension in 2003 of between $18 and $25 million.

Hrinya continues, “He also absorbed lousy contracts in trades, like those of one-time Net Keith Van Horn, Kevin Ollie, and Glenn Robinson. King’s penchant for spending big money on fringe players or those past their prime would foreshadow events to come in Brooklyn. He butchered the Sixers organization after inheriting a perennial MVP candidate (Allen Iverson), yet somehow he found himself working for the richest owner in sports with a billion-dollar stadium on the horizon. That must have been some job interview with the Nets.”

King’s tenure in Phiadelphia certainly did foreshadow what he did with the Nets, as he threw a lot of money around and make reckless trades. He traded a lot to Atlanta for the bloated contract of Joe Johnson, sent three first-round draft picks to the Boston Celtics for the ancient Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Jason Terry, and sent a lottery pick to Portland that turned into Damian Lillard for Gerald Wallace, and gave him a large contract.

They all were to please one diva-like player that they brought in at the trade deadline in February 2011, Deron Williams. From the minute Williams arrived, he was always battling an injury of some kind. He had an ailing wrist when he was acquired from Utah and problems with his ankles in the Nets’ first two years in Brooklyn. A running theme as well was his endless excuses as to why he and the Nets did not perform better, with the weakest being complaints about the sightlines at Prudential Center.

During the 2011-12 season and continuing into that offseason, the Nets tried to acquire Orlando’s Dwight Howard to play alongside Williams. Hrinya does an excellent job of describing the soap opera surrounding that, and how it all was meant to help the case to keep Williams, who was a free agent in 2012, a Net as they moved to Brooklyn.

“This Nets’ philosophy, which had begun when the team had Carmelo Anthony in its sights, now continued with Dwight Howard as the prize. King would acquire the star, Johnson would coach the star, and Yormark would market the star. What a triumvirate,” wrote Hrinya somewhat in jest. The Nets ended up not making the trade for Howard, instead keeping Brook Lopez, which probably worked out better for them anyway.

Hrinya does an exceptional job describing the long process to get the Nets here, which involved Bruce Ratner building Barclays Center as part of a larger multi-development plan using eminent domain and, when the severe recession of 2008 hit, how Prokhorov came in to save the day.

He describes the amenities at Barclays Center and how the Nets left behind two arenas for the glory of this new billion-dollar arena. One of the highlights was all the food vendors on the concourse, to which Yormark said at the time, “Everything is made to order, it’s fresh, some of it’s organic. It’s truly a culinary experience for anyone that comes into the building.” To which Hrinya wrote, “The culinary options may have made fans forget that they came to watch a basketball game.”

Yormark made a vow that would turn out not to be true at all and that Hryina documents, “Yormark yearned for the days when Nets fans would finally outnumber the competition. He even guaranteed as much following a bizarre game against the New York Knicks on April 19, 2012. ‘The nights where there are more fans for the opposing team than ours won’t happen in Brooklyn,’ Yormark told the Daily News. ‘We’ll have diehard fans that are going to grow up as Brooklyn Nets fans.'” Anybody who has been at Barclays the past few years when the Knicks or Lakers or whatever team LeBron James plays for can attest to the fact that there are plenty of fans for the road team in the building.

The book gives a day-by-day description of the 2012-13 season. There was Hurricane Sandy delaying the opener, the Nets’ torrid start followed by a bad December in which Avery Johnson was fired as head coach. Avery was fired when the team was 14-14, and this was after he coached the team the last two years in Jersey, which the organization punted. The perception of some was that he deserved to coach the entire first year in Brooklyn.

Hrinya took a different view, “Johnson did not receive a bye for all those New Jersey losses. The head coach had failed for his third consecutive season, and that ultimately led to his downfall. Other head coaches had surely won with less. The recently deposed signal caller had always pointed to future improvement without ever taking responsibility for the present. And he followed his modus operandi during the fallout.” In his farewell comments, he looked at the first two years as being rough and then he would have the first two years in Brooklyn.

One of the quotes that showed how funny Johnson was dealing with the media was not about basketball (Hrinya does provide plenty of those), but it was on Kris Humphries’ wedding to Kim Kardashian. Johnson, along with King, was at the wedding, and Avery said the following of it, “Kris is a focused young man and we know he’s real passionate about the game of basketball. The life that he’s leading right now, that’s just a part of this new social media, that’s just a part of his lifestyle.” To this quote, Hrinya responds, “In Johnson’s eyes, all the kids engaged in that sort of behavior because of that dang technology.”

Hrinya describes when Kardashian first met Humphries after attending the Nets’ game with the Heat in October 2010. The media was walking behind her entourage after the game, and she was possibly on her way to meet Humphries. Hrinya says of this, “Sounded like love at first dunk. In Humphries’ defense, she stuck around after the Nets had suffered a 101-78 blowout in which Humphries finished the game with six points and four rebounds. She was a keeper.”

Going back to the 2012-13 season, it was marked by the Nets’ surge after P.J. Carlesimo took over head coaching duties, big games throughout that season like when the Miami Heat came to Brooklyn for the first time, and the first-round loss to the Chicago Bulls.

The next turn in the plot of this book, which reads like a novel in how it is crafted, is when Jason Kidd is hired as Head Coach and the blockbuster trade with the Celtics that brought Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce here.

He analyzes how Williams would be affected by the Kidd hiring and how they were good friends. “The hiring never bothered Williams. It never bothered King, either, and he stood to lose a lot more than the point guard. He positioned a win-now team with a coach who would surely experience growing pains. Given Williams’ track record with head coaches, his friendship with Kidd had crossed enough minds to warrant questions.”

Earlier in the book, there is a discussion of Williams’ relationship with Utah Head Coach Jerry Sloan and how D-Will was blamed for the longtime coach resigning. Williams was then also blamed for Avery Johnson being fired just 28 games into the 2012-13 season, right after Williams made the surprising move of criticizing Johnson’s offense and praising what he used to run in Utah with Sloan.

The Nets started the 2013-14 season miserably, falling to a 10-21 record with a blowout loss in San Antonio on New Year’s Eve. Within this dreadful run, Lawrence Frank, who served as Kidd’s lead assistant, was dismissed after repeated clashes with Kidd’s on things like the infamous “soda incident” and cursing out Frank once for also standing up on the sideline.

The Nets turned it around with a comeback win in Oklahoma City on January 2, 2014, coincidentally when Kidd stopped wearing ties. They surged into the final few months of the season and finished with 43 wins. There is also detailed analysis of the Nets’ signing of Jason Collins, the first openly gay athlete in major American professional sports, in February 2014 and whether it was more for basketball or historic reasons, as well as who the Nets could have gotten besides Collins.

The Nets played a classic first-round series with the Toronto Raptors, which featured many great moments from Pierce. The series went the distance, and the Nets won Game 7 when Pierce blocked Kyle Lowry at the buzzer. The Nets’ reward in the second round was the Miami Heat and they were dispatched in five games.

The book’s alternate title could have been “Doing it all for Deron.” The Nets crafted this team to make him comfortable in Brooklyn, which he never really was. He also never lived up to his $100 million contract either, part of the reason the Nets won just one playoff series with him here.

Hrinya says this of the Nets’ relationship with Williams, “Management allowed Williams to hold the franchise hostage. Considering his lengthy injury history, they allowed one player to wield far too much power. The move paid dividends in the sense that the Nets attracted other star players, albeit past their primes, and continued to brand an evolving product. From an Xs and Os standpoint, the move was a disaster. At no point did Williams ever have a clean bill of health. He received more injections in his ankles than a thoroughbred race horse.”

This book is a must-read for Nets fans, or really NBA fans in general, as a lot of their moves affected many teams and it’s fun to piece together all the ripple effects of King’s wheeling and dealing.

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