It was a prevailing theory around the NBA for some time that the situation in East Rutherford, N.J., could hardly get any worse. Well, the New Jersey Nets have proved all those theorists wrong. The situation can always get worse around Exit 16W of the New Jersey Turnpike, and so it has. As of Sunday evening, the Nets' coach was eyeing the buzzards circling overhead, one of the team's owners was heading for vacation wondering if he still had a place in the organization, the players were performing erratically, and the fans—what there are of them, anyway—were shaking their heads and wondering what possesses them to follow this rubber-soled theater of the absurd.
"I've never been through anything like this," said New Jersey coach Bill Fitch. "If I had been, I'd be out there selling insurance or pencils right now. Anything but coaching. Coaching was not meant to be like this."
The Nets, 7-18 at week's end, are not the worst team in the NBA, not while there's a Minnesota Timberwolf still standing for the national anthem anyway. But they remain the most adept at embarrassing themselves. With an ideal franchise, owners, front-office executives, coaches and players are on the same page; in New Jersey, these people are reading different books in different languages.
The phrase "this much is certain" is difficult to use in matters pertaining to the Nets, but this much is certain: The two-year-old Fitch regime is on its last legs. As of late Sunday night, there were continued reports that former North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano had already signed a five-year guaranteed deal worth between $500,000 and $600,000 a year to replace Fitch. And even if Valvano isn't the next man to grab the blackboard and step onto the plank, there seems to be no way that ol' Captain Video, who at this time a decade ago was on his way to winning an NBA championship in Boston, will survive this tumultuous season as the Nets' coach. Fitch is incompatible with one of the franchise's owners, Joe Taub, and is also at odds with the player Taub considers to be the franchise's future, rookie point guard Kenny Anderson. Then again, Taub, who overstepped his bounds in his eagerness to bring in Valvano, may not be around for long either.
In any case Anderson, whose contract is worth about $14.5 million over five seasons, will be staying. Lucky guy, eh?
It's impossible to determine exactly when the most recent plan to revitalize the Nets went awry. Was it the hiring, in August 1989, of the strong-willed Fitch, New Jersey's eighth head coach in 10 years? Was it the drafting, in '90, of the promising but enigmatic Derrick Coleman, who has openly feuded with Fitch this season? Was it the re-entry, last June, into the muddled Nets' ownership picture of the outspoken Taub, who was certain to butt heads with Fitch and further muddle the role of Willis Reed, who carries the title of senior vice-president of basketball operations? Or was it the resignation shortly after Taub arrived of executive vice-president Bob Casciola, who one Nets insider described as the "coach of the owners"? Or was it Taub's insistence that the Nets draft Anderson, who plainly did not fit into Fitch's control offense?
Or should one just chalk it all up to fate, to the inevitability that somehow, some way, events surrounding the Turnpike Team are bound to get curiouser and curiouser. After all, this is the franchise that in its first year of existence as the New Jersey Americans of the ABA had to forfeit a playoff game because of unplayable conditions at the Commack (N.Y.) Arena. The game had been moved to Commack in the first place because the Americans' home arena, the Teaneck (N.J.) Armory, was hosting a circus. Here's the news: As far as Nets fans are concerned, the tents never folded up.
Fitch's decision to come in as ringmaster before the 1989-90 season raised eyebrows around the league. Some observers considered him too set in his ways and, at the age of 55, simply not energetic enough to turn around a team that had lost 177 of 246 games over the previous three seasons. But Fitch, who has made his mark by making bad teams into respectable ones (the expansion Cleveland Cavaliers of the early 1970s, the Boston Celtics of the late '70s, the Houston Rockets of the early '80s) and, in the case of the Celtics, into champions, has nothing if not a strong belief in himself. "It was not a mistake to take this job," Fitch said last Saturday, hours before the Nets dropped a 118-109 overtime decision to the Pacers in Indiana. "The Nets were a challenge, but if I could have done with them what I had with the others, I would have completed a cycle second to none."
Some wondered, too, how Fitch would fare under the Nets' confusing ownership chain, which includes a three-man governing committee (Alan Aufzien, David Gerstein and Jerry Cohen) that is itself a subcommittee of a seven-man board of directors. When Fitch met with the three owner-governors, he told them, "If you guys are as bad as people say you are, I'm not going to take this job." They persuaded him they weren't.
Fitch said he would need some time to build a winner, and he got it, signing a four-year contract worth $1.6 million. He won 17 games in 1989-90 and 26 games last season with the help of Rookie of the Year Coleman. Though no one was boosting New Jersey as a championship team nor Fitch as a candidate for coach of the year, the match of veteran coach and young team seemed satisfactory. But not satisfactory enough for Taub, a strong personality who in the early '80s had been a majority owner and an active voice in day-to-day affairs of the Nets. He had sold his interest in '85 but stayed close to the team, and, when then board vice-chairman Bernie Mann put his shares in the Nets up for sale last spring, Taub bought back in. He owns only 5% of the team, but he is recognized as "the basketball man" among the owners and was given specific "adviser" duties by the governing committee. Whether or not Taub knows his stuff is irrelevant: When he was given his advisory position somewhere in the hierarchy above Fitch, one could discern storm clouds on the smoggy North Jersey horizon. "For all intents and purposes, it was all over [for Fitch] when Joe came back," says a Nets source.
The situation only worsened when Casciola, the human buffer zone between the owners and Fitch, left to become executive director of the National Football Foundation and College Hall of Fame. Casciola says that he might have taken that job in any case but that "when Joe came back, it just hastened my decision. I didn't see how it could work."
Taub and Fitch locked horns immediately over last June's draft, which was, to be fair, problematic, and not just for the Nets. Taub wanted Anderson, in whom he saw "a player who comes along once every 10 years" and one who would turn the Nets into "a 45-game winner and a solid playoff contender" within two years. Fitch begged to differ. He saw a frail, young project who had only two years of college ball under his belt and who, according to Fitch, "despite his city roots, had seen less than a dozen NBA games in his entire life." Fitch has extreme self-confidence, particularly in his ability to assess talent, and he liked Larry Johnson, Billy Owens, Dikembe Mutombo and Steve Smith—who turned out to be, respectively, picks Nos. 1, 3, 4 and 5—more than he liked Anderson. And Reed was an Owens man all the way. But Taub prevailed, and the Nets made Anderson the No. 2 pick of the draft.
The worst possible scenario evolved after that. Fitch fretted and fumed as Anderson remained unsigned until the second week of the season. And to get the deal done. New Jersey had to waive two Fitch favorites (Jud Buechler and Dave Feitl) and redo the contracts of five other players—Coleman, Sam Bowie, Chris Morris, Tate George and Roy Hinson. At a Nov. 8 press conference to announce Anderson's signing, Fitch, in what turned out to be a triumph of candor over tact and timing, lambasted the Nets ownership for making what he called "a horrible decision" in giving up so much to sign Anderson. Anderson's generally poor play and Fitch's consequent refusal to give him substantial minutes guaranteed that there would be no fence-mending. At week's end Anderson had averaged just 16 minutes during New Jersey's last five games and was complaining about it. He was also referring to himself in the third person, which might be O.K. for, say, Muhammad Ali in his prime but is unwise for a rookie shooting 35% from the floor. "I'm just not getting quality time like Kenny Anderson is used to playing," he said on one occasion." And on another, "If I was playing and screwing up all the time, then I'd point the finger at Kenny. But I'm not getting an opportunity." Coleman, for his part, openly pouts during some games. After Fitch didn't use him until the third period of a 98-89 loss to the Los Angeles Lakers on Dec. 6, Coleman said, "You call that coaching?"
Taub doesn't. Over the last few weeks he has made more overtures than the New York Philharmonic, asking old friend Rick Pitino, Doug Moe and Doug Collins if they were interested in the job. There is no doubt that if Pitino, the coach at Kentucky, ever becomes interested in coaching the Nets and Taub still has power, Pitino will be at Meadowlands Arena faster than Anderson can say "Wow! Rick got here so fast, Kenny's head is spinning." But Pitino was not interested, and neither was Collins or Moe. Valvano was interested, however, and out of a lunch with Taub at the Ritz Carlton on Central Park South in New York City on Dec. 16 came an offer that one of Valvano's representatives characterized as "formal and firm." But when it became public, Aufzien, the chairman of the board, reluctantly convened the press (he, unlike Taub, does not enjoy the spotlight) and said, among other things, that the offer was neither formal nor firm because Taub was not empowered to make it. In partnership with Gerstein, Aufzien owns 51% of the Nets, and without his hand on the pen, no coach will be signed by New Jersey. "[Taub] doesn't make offers," said Aufzien. "He advises. I make my decisions based on the recommendation of Willis Reed. I wouldn't know Jim Valvano if I fell over him." (Valvano is easily identified, Alan: Right now he's the only one in America willing to accept the job of coaching the Nets.)
Taub appeared at New Jersey's 115-98 home loss last Friday night to the Chicago Bulls with Donald Trump and Maria Maples in tow. "I was not authorized to offer a job," he said, "but I was authorized to meet with Valvano. There was no way I would go against the organization. I know my role here." He said Cohen was at the lunch, too, opening the possibility that it was Cohen, who holds the title of club president, who made the offer. (Cohen had not commented as of Sunday.)
When Fitch was told that Donald and Maria had visited the locker room after the game—Taub didn't introduce them to the coach—he quipped, "Is Trump in line for the job, too?" From time to time, though, the lire in Fitch returns. "I'll tell you what," he said when asked how Valvano might fare in the NBA, "I'd love to coach a Game 7 against Jim Valvano."
Other possible scenarios? Take your pick. Some say Taub might go, and even he acknowledged on Friday that "I might be out of a job." That will leave Aufzien to make the call, and he will depend on Reed, who should be making the basketball decisions anyway. Reed will either keep Fitch or hire someone with whom Taub did not schmooze, former New York Knick coach Stu Jackson, perhaps. Others say that Taub will survive, and that Cohen will step forward and make the Valvano hire. Another possibility is that Fitch will be fired, assistant coach Tom Newell (who is close to most of the young players and who was mentioned by several of them as a popular successor) will be elevated on an interim basis, and ex-Hawk coach Mike Fratello or another marquee name will take over next season. But Newell has indicated that he would not want an interim position.
The one certainty is that the Nets' multilayered ownership arrangement isn't working, has never worked and never will work. It has led to bad decision after bad decision, embarrassment after embarrassment. The Turnpike Team is playing in a dreary arena, before an eroding fan base, with an unappetizing blend of players, under unstable leadership. And whatever the denouement of this latest fiasco, the Nets are on shakier ground than ever.