The New Jersey Nets played their final game in the Garden State last Monday night, before the franchise packs up everything and moves across two rivers to Brooklyn for the start of the 2012-13 season.
It signaled the end of a 35-year history of the franchise in New Jersey, the first major pro sports franchise to actually adopt the name of “New Jersey,” even though there are other teams – like the Giants, Jets and Red Bulls – that call New Jersey home and have New York names.
The final game at the Prudential Center brought a lot of former Nets players and coaches over the years back to celebrate the end of the era.
One Jersey City native had the distinction of being both a player and a coach with the Nets, namely former Hudson Catholic standout Mike O’Koren.
O’Koren was drafted in the first round by the Nets in 1980 out of North Carolina and spent eight years with the team as a player, including their stunning playoff upset of the defending NBA champion Philadelphia 76ers in 1984.
He then returned as an assistant coach and was part of the staff that helped the Nets reach the NBA Finals in consecutive years in 2002 and 2003.
All totaled, O’Koren spent 14 years as a player and a coach with the franchise, as well as doing color commentary on the radio broadcasts for a few seasons.
Needless to say, O’Koren had some mixed emotions about the final game in his home state.
“It was fantastic to see a lot of my former teammates and I was glad that the Nets did it that way,” O’Koren said. “But no question about it, we were sad about it. I wish the team good luck in Brooklyn, but I’m a Jersey guy. It’s very hard. The Nets were a big part of my life in New Jersey. There’s sadness. There’s an empty feeling. Part of my life is not coming back. It’s not disappointment. It’s more sadness.”
O’Koren, who is a good basketball guy now in need of a break to get back into coaching, after spending a few years in Philadelphia and Washington with former Sixers and Wizards head coach Eddie Jordan, said that he liked spending the night reminiscing with former Nets teammate Darwin Cook, then spending some time on air with the YES Network announcing crew of Ian Eagle and Jim Spanarkel.
“Darwin Cook was a great teammate and an even better friend,” O’Koren said. “We were very tight. Our families are tight. I don’t get to see him often now, but it was like we never left each other. That is priceless.”
As for Spanarkel, it was a reunion of two long-time friends and high school teammates. The two still remain the two best products of Hudson Catholic and combined to lead the Hawks to the 1975 HCIAA championship, the school’s last county crown before the Hawks won it again this year.
“You really can’t put a price tag on friendships like that,” O’Koren said.
Spanarkel also played in the NBA with the Philadelphia 76ers and Dallas Mavericks. While he never played for the Nets, he’s spent the last 22 years announcing Net games in some capacity.
“I have mixed feelings about it,” Spanarkel said. “Being a Jersey guy, I feel for those who were born and raised here. It’s been part of our lives for such a long time. Times change, things change. I’ve done a lot of games here. It was a great ride. It’s been 22 years and you look up and wonder, ‘Where did those years go?’ It’s been a lot of fun. I’m lucky to have been involved with this franchise for so long.”
Spanarkel remembers when the team was first renamed and moved to the Garden State.
“It was really great to see New Jersey finally be represented,” Spanarkel said. “The Giants were already here, but they weren’t New Jersey. This team was New Jersey.”
Spanarkel recalled the first time he traveled to New Jersey as a member of the Sixers.
“We were on the bus coming up from Philadelphia on the way to Piscataway [the Nets first played their home games in the Rutgers Athletic Center before the Meadowlands Arena was built] and the bus driver got lost,” Spanarkel said. “[Sixers head coach and Hall of Famer] Billy Cunningham asked me, ‘Hey, Spanarkel, you’re from Jersey. How do we get to Rutgers?’ I couldn’t tell him because I never had been to Rutgers much. I couldn’t help.
“But those days, coming back home to play was such a treat,” Spanarkel added. “Everyone who gets a chance to play away from home, then comes home, it’s a treat. I remember my family and friends being there.”
Spanarkel also knew that he represented Jersey City every time he took the floor.
“I felt like I carried the torch for Jersey City,” Spanarkel said. “It made it seem like Jersey City was such a small town, but I was one of their guys with tremendous loyalty and support from there. People always know that you’re from Jersey City and Hudson County and it’s like everyone knows everyone. Those were great thrills coming home as a player.”
Spanarkel said that he will follow the Nets to Brooklyn and continue to announce games on the YES Network next season.
O’Koren does not have that same luxury.
“It’s over,” O’Koren said. “Life goes on. I had some great moments with the Nets. We beat the Sixers and we were all ecstatic as players. To be in the NBA Finals as a coach and be part of that experience was great. It was a great time here. It’s hard to think it’s over.”
Jim Hague can be reached at OGSMAR@aol.com. You can also read Jim’s blog, which features memories of his tenure covering the Nets in New Jersey, at www.jimhaguesports.blogspot.com.