Go down any residential block on Long Island and you’re almost assured of seeing at least one basketball net in front of a house and depending on the time of year there’s a good chance you’ll see some kids running around and shooting hoops. The same goes for any town or county park on Long Island where as long as its not raining or snowing, you’ll see some pickup basketball games and depending on the park some of those games have been known to be legendary.
Throw in your local youth basketball leagues, middle school, high school and college games, and fans that will jump on a Long Island Railroad train to see a Nets or a Knicks game and you have a underrated suburban hotbed of basketball in the shadows of New York City. With that said, it’s appropriate that last year this area rich in basketball tradition and participation was given a professional team to call it’s own.
After playing it’s inaugural season at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, the Long Island Nets of the G-League had a home of it’s own for the first time last season when the franchise played their first season at NYCB Live, home of the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. After playing mainly on afternoons in front of little or no people in Brooklyn their first year, the Nets began to build their Long Island fan base last season.
“I think we’ve progressed very nicely,” said Alton Byrd, the Long Island Nets’ Vice-President of Business Operations. “I’m always going to tell you I’m happy but not satisfied. I think there’s a lot of growth we as a franchise have to do but I’m happy with the direction that we are going.”
The Long Island Nets, the G-League affiliate of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets will open up their 2018-19 season on Saturday November 3rd at Nassau Coliseum when they host their rivals the Westchester Knicks, the affiliate of the New York Knicks. Just like you see in minor league baseball, the Long Island Nets present their fans with a high level of basketball on the court but there’s also a lot going on off the court.
From an interactive kids zone behind one of the baskets to games and contests during media timeouts to a very lively gameday or gamenight experience, the Nets are a viable option for many Long Island sports fans. Just like last year, the Nets will offer their fans some great promotions and themed nights during the upcoming season including what I’m told is a very “unique” giveaway on opening night.
The Nets are bringing back the “Kids Go Free” promotion that they started last year where two children get free tickets with the purchase of an adult ticket. There will also be $1 hot dog games on November 8th and February 21st, souvenir cups on November 27th, “Wacky Wednesdays” with $2 beer and $5 wine on December 12th, January 2nd, February 27th, March 6th and March 13th.
There will also be two 11am tip-offs for schools days on December 4th for grades kindergarten through fifth grade and on January 6th for grades six through eight. A third school related matinees will take place for all grades at the Barclays Center on February 4th. At these games, the Nets offer kids an educational experience at the games with trivia and other contests during the timeouts and the ticket includes a boxed lunch.
What the Nets are trying to do is carve out a niche for themselves and duplicate the success and popularity of the Long Island Ducks minor league baseball team. The Ducks have won three Atlantic League championships, but it’s the fun family atmosphere at Bethpage Ballpark that continues to bring the fans out in big numbers.
“There’s nothing wrong with comparing the experience (at a Nets game) to the Ducks,” said Byrd. “They’ve been a standard setter for Long Island for years. I think (GM) Mike (Pfaff) and the ownership there do a terrific job of entertaining families. We aspire to do exactly the same and hopefully to continually get better at it and between the end of October and the end of March (the Coliseum) becomes the place to go if you’re looking for something to do for you with your family.”
While the Nassau Coliseum’s history is generally associated with the Islanders, the arena does have a rich history of basketball as well. It was the home of the New York Nets who won two ABA championships before the merger with the NBA. In fact, the final ABA game ever was at the Coliseum on May 13th, 1976 when the Nets captured their second title beating the Denver Nuggets in game six of the finals. Long Island native and Basketball Hall of Famer Julius “Dr. J” Erving was a star for the Nets during the Coliseum era and his number 32 jersey hangs in the rafters after it was retired at the LI Nets’ home opener last season.
The Coliseum has also hosted many college basketball games including the NCAA Tournament as well as high school games, the Harlem Globetrotters and NBA pre-season games. There’s also been other alternative sports that have been played at the Coliseum like indoor soccer, arena football and indoor lacrosse. But that was all before the massive renovation between 2015 and 2017.
Today, the Long Island Nets play in what is basically an arena that is about 3,000 seats shy of being an NBA facility. They are also part of a parent organization that has a plan and is headed in the right direction.
“We’re fortunate that we play in what I think is the best building in the G-League and fortunate that we’ve got an organization that is committed to developing talent which means we’ll always have a plethora of good players,” said Byrd.
Brooklyn Nets General Manager Sean Marks and LI Nets GM Trajan Langdon are currently at work putting the roster together. The team will be comprised of players assigned to the club by Brooklyn and the roster will be rounded out by players selected in the G-League Draft. Last season, with several players that went back and forth from Long Island to Brooklyn, the LI Nets improved their win total by ten from their inaugural season and almost made the playoffs.
Part of the Brooklyn Nets overall plan is to cultivate a winning atmosphere on Long Island and develop players that will help turn the Brooklyn Nets into winners. Long Island also provides and opportunity for the Brooklyn Nets to develop coaches and to find talented people to work in the front office.
“I certainly believe that Sean and Trajan have a blueprint,” said Byrd. “They know what it’s going to take to become a competitive championship level organization. We’ve become a real conduit for developing talent on the court for our Brooklyn Nets brothers and organization to develop talent off the court wether it be coaching staff, business staff and I think we’ve done a really good job of cementing our reputation as a really good place for people to develop.”
A perfect example of that is former head coach Ronald Nored who spent two seasons with Long Island before being hired as an assistant coach of the Charlotte Hornets. The Nets didn’t look far to hire new head coach Will Weaver who was a special assistant to Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson the last two years. Weaver has already rolled up his sleeves with the LI Nets and has even chipped in with community efforts.
“He’s been great,” said Byrd. “From our perspective on the business side, we are inextricably linked between business and basketball and Will’s been great. He has committed right on day one to be a part of what we do in the community and be a part of what we do throughout Long Island and is willing and able to do so and I think he’s a great fit for us.”
In addition to Weaver, the Nets are also excited about another new member of the organization and that’s “Dale the Eagle”, the Nets’ first ever mascot selected as the winning entry in a fan contest. Dale’s name comes from Uniondale, the town where the Coliseum is located and he’ll wear number 72 to reflect when the Coliseum originally opened in 1972.
And with the Islanders’ temporary return to the Nassau Coliseum for twenty games in each of the next three seasons, Dale will have an opportunity to spend some time with Islanders mascot Sparky who is no stranger to entertaining fans on Long Island.
In fact, I’m told there has already been at least one meeting of the mascot minds.
“We’re looking forward to having Sparky and Dale hang out together,” said Byrd. “I think they’ve already met and had a chance to connect. They had some conversations if that’s at all possible with two mascots sworn to no talking but they seemed to connect.”
It’s all part of the fun that is Long Island Nets basketball. To be completely transparent, I don’t pretend to be the biggest basketball fan on the planet, but I brought my family to some Long Island Nets games last season and it was a great experience. You see some excellent basketball up close in seats that you may never get to experience at the NBA level at family affordable prices.
At a Nets game, you just might have one of the referees ask your child to hold the ball during a media timeout, you might haul in a souvenir during the t-shirt toss, or you might have a player hand you a sneaker, towel or a wristband coming off the court. When my kids ask me when we’re coming back for another game, you know it had to be a great experience.