Crowd gathers to bid Nets goodbye

As they took the floor for one last regrettable performance before leaving their history and identity at the state line, the New Jersey Nets sent their injured center, Brook Lopez, to the middle of the court with a microphone.

Whatever is left of the Nets’ woebegone fan base had packed the Prudential Center on Monday night — a real NBA atmosphere, with folks wearing jerseys and toting signs — for one final goodbye before the team moves to Brooklyn next season, and here was Lopez to acknowledge them for it.

“We’d like to thank you this season for all your support, myself and the entire Nets organization,” he said. “You’re a huge part of what we do. We can’t wait to see you in the stands next year.”

And if ever there were such a thing as 18,711 people sitting in awkward silence, that was it. It was a fitting end for a franchise that was hardly loved and will barely be missed.

The Nets aren’t moving far from New Jersey, just a half-hour drive on a good day, but they are very much leaving this place behind. And for as much fun as the fans had at certain points last night, especially during a third-quarter run against the Philadelphia 76ers when they cheered “Let’s Go Nets” and serenaded Kris Humphries with chants of “MVP,” this was truly a goodbye.

Goodbye to a journey that began in 1977 when the Nets, twice champions of the American Basketball Association, landed in New Jersey after they were merged into the NBA. Goodbye to a journey that included 22 losing seasons out of the next 35, unspeakable player tragedies, coaching strife, bad owners and missed opportunities every time it looked as if things might start to turn around.

Goodbye to this state, which always seemed more like basketball purgatory than the NBA, a place for players either on their way up or down but hardly ever in between.

“I know they’re disappointed, but it’s a new chapter and it’s been coming for a while,” said head coach Avery Johnson. “There’s going to be a lot of memories for the fans. We know some are going with us and some aren’t.”

Almost all of them aren’t.

Only 13.4 miles separate Newark and the downtown Brooklyn site where the sparkling Barclays Center is being erected for these Nets. For most of the country, that doesn’t sound like a significant relocation. NBA fans in most cities routinely drive longer distances from their suburban homes to see games.

But for most of the fans who showed up last night, the Nets might as well be moving to Montana. Brooklyn might not look far away on a map, but for those who live around here, it is a different market entirely. People who live in New Jersey may come to Manhattan for work and occasionally entertainment, but Brooklyn is literally a bridge too far — and for most, an NBA team that recorded its 43rd loss of a 66-game season last night with a 105-87 defeat isn’t a compelling enough reason to cross it.

“When I was out there signing autographs earlier, some of the fans were saying, ‘I don’t know if I can make that trip to Brooklyn,’” said Queens native Kenny Anderson, who played for the Nets from 1991-96. “A different type of fan will be at the game. You’ll get a lot of the inner-city kids, the inner-city families, people from different cultures. It’s going to be interesting.”

Sports fans around the country often see New York and New Jersey as one and the same, which is understandable since New York’s NFL teams both play in East Rutherford. But this isn’t the same, not at all. It’s as though the NBA shut down a team in New Jersey and put an expansion franchise in a completely different town.

And maybe it’s just as well. Sure, there have been some wonderful moments for the Nets in New Jersey, and the halftime ceremony Monday was a testament to all of them. When they turned down the lights in the Prudential Center and rolled red carpet across the floor, there was legitimate affection for the likes of Darryl Dawkins and Derrick Coleman, Micheal Ray Richardson and the late Drazen Petrovic, whose mother was there to represent him. Fans screamed when Jason Kidd, who authored runs to the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003, gave them a short message on the video board. They cheered when Kerry Kittles and Todd MacCulloch carried out the Eastern Conference championship trophies.

But New Jersey will not really miss the Nets, not the way Cleveland missed the Browns when they went to Baltimore. There won’t be a bitter void here the way there was in Charlotte when George Shinn moved the Hornets to New Orleans.

Whatever affection there might have once been, whatever fan base might have existed, was pretty much squeezed out when Bruce Ratner bought the team in 2004, gutted it and used it to leverage a mega-land deal in Brooklyn, of which the new arena was a key piece. Then he sold it to Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, and the Nets are about to complete their fifth straight season without making the playoffs.

So even though some fans stuck around Monday night at the end to take pictures on the court, holding up their tickets, there isn’t much nostalgia left here. Even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, when asked Monday about the Nets leaving, had little to offer but a shrug of the shoulders.

“You don’t want to stay, we don’t want you,” he said. “That’s one of the most beautiful arenas in America that they got a chance to play in. It’s in one of the country’s most vibrant cities. And if they want to leave and go to Brooklyn, good riddance.”

And just like that, it was over, the night concluding with a video montage of the past 35 years, set to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run.” The Nets might not be running far from their tortured history in New Jersey, but finally, they’re running away.