I can only really speak from and to my own experience, but the reason I chose to let the New Jersey Nets make me upset and betray my every youthful hope is simple. I was an idiot. Just a big self-defeating dope, doing stupendously and obviously wrong things for stupendously, obviously wrong reasons. I cannot emphasize this enough.
I was also probably 12 years old or so at the time, to be fair, which would mitigate that judgment somewhat if I had in any way altered or improved on any of this. But my decision-making is still subject to the same instincts that made me look at the New Jersey Nets—then getting blown out by the Bucks in an empty building marooned in North Jersey's gassy marshland, then owned by a squabbling gaggle of defective North Jersey swells who could turn an attempt to order dinner in a family style restaurant into three separate and extremely acrimonious lawsuits—and think Yes, This Is For Me. I could tell you more about why I did this sort of thing, or why I continue to do it, or I can just keep going over it with my therapist, but the salient point is that I looked at what was objectively a lost cause—this basketball team, and the decision to invest my heart in it—and saw a cause, full stop.
Not just that: I saw in my fandom the cause of my young and ridiculous life. When the world said, "The Nets are obviously going to lose to the Indiana Pacers by 18 tonight," I would raise my voice and respond, "actually Kevin Edwards defends Reggie Miller fairly well so you never know." I would sort of know what I was talking about, really deeply truly mean it, and also basically be out of my mind with wrongness. The team was unlucky and undermanned, intermittently fun without quite ever being all that good, and none of that was really that important. I wanted them to be good, very much, but mostly I just needed them to be there.
But if this devotion was stupid, because the Nets were stupid, it was also right in one important way. I was, like anyone else at that age, looking for someone to be and someplace to be from. I was, like everyone else at that age, prostrate and incapacitated before my own stormy needs and un-understood frustrations. I needed something to yell about, maybe more than anything else, and the Nets presented themselves. So I chose the Nets, because I could see my struggles in theirs and because they played fairly nearby.
And then, during the years in which we needed it most, my friends and I went and screamed our guts out. We just decided that was who we were, and became that. That doomy concrete pillbox with the basketball court in it, the windswept parking lots that smelled like sourdough ass, the rattling wood-and-steel pedestrian bridge over the highway—this was all honestly pretty shitty, but it was a place to be from, and we homesteaded it. If this was all kind of a bit much, or if we were silly for needing it the way we did, well, it's not our fault. By the time we are old enough to pick a team that might make us happy, and understand ourselves enough to make a decent decision, we're already too deep in it.
There is a sort of person who could drop an allegiance to a sports team in adulthood simply because It Wasn't Working Out, but I don't know if that's a person I'd completely trust, or whose heart I'd even incompletely understand. To really make a clean break, the team will have to leave you. This tends to happen the same way every time, when it happens. It happened this week to the people who care about the St. Louis Rams and the San Diego Chargers, when those two teams got approval to move to Los Angeles; the teams will play their games at the center of a sprawling mall-campus that is exactly as tasteless and glossy as you'd expect, in front of whatever Angelenos actually want to spend their Sundays watching the Rams or Chargers.
This is the thing that I remember from the long slide of disenchantment and bad faith and dereliction that accompanied the Nets' abandonment of New Jersey for Brooklyn: the inevitability and the slow sadness of it, but mostly how fucking tacky it was. It is always like this—the business of building some ugly new stadium or turning a team into a luxury brand or uprooting a team and taking it somewhere else—and it is always going to be smooth and crude in the same proportion, and cynical in the same ways. This is because the jumped-up billionaires that deposed the local humps that used to own teams like the Nets generally are pretty similar, both in terms of what they want and how they go about getting it.
There are regional differences in presentation—the Chargers are the dynastic property of the dour Spanos family; the Rams belong, like a great many other pro sports teams and nearly a million acres of American land, to a reclusive billionaire named Stan Kroenke; the Nets, when they moved, were owned by a New York real estate developer renowned for his mastery of sketchy subsidy. These people don't really look alike, and beyond their high-test avarice and bank balances there isn't much linking them. But the things they want—which is really the thing that billionaires mostly want, which is more—tend to look alike. The ways in which they pursue them tend to look alike; it's all passionate promises until the moment it isn't, and then it's in gravity's hands. "I'm going to attempt to do everything that I can to keep the Rams in St. Louis," Kroenke told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2010, "I've been a Missourian for 60 years. People in our state know me. People know I can be trusted. People know I am an honorable guy."
He might even have meant it, but you can still smell the formaldehyde in his syntax—going to attempt to do everything that I can, for sure man—even without the benefit of hindsight. Kroenke is a collector, of teams and land and money; his business is asset accumulation. He will behave with that goal in mind always, and so will his peers. We know them, and know they can be trusted to do exactly and only that. But this is not quite the same thing as being prepared for the moment when they do it.
What I remember about the Nets leaving New Jersey, at their last meaningless games in the swamp and then in Newark, was a sense of absence. There was some phantom-limb heartache, but I'd already disentangled myself from the team. This was in part because I was no longer 12 and had other things to care about and a wider range of bad decisions to make, but it was also because the organization had already done so much to let us know that they were no longer mine, and that their games were no longer my place. New people will make a home of these teams, and that is good. But that was for them.
This hurts, of course. But in some ways, the ugliness of how this goes, how this always goes, makes the parting easier. A team can be so many things, and mean so much; the best owners, who are the rarest, understand this, and treat their teams as the shared civic institution that they wind up becoming with time. Owners that do not see it that way tend to make that abundantly clear. By the time they get around to leaving town, everyone that cared about the team will have begun moving on anyway. Then it's just a matter of cutting your losses.