The toughest man in New Jersey history isn't Bill Parcells or
Kenyon Martin or Paulie Walnuts. He's 77-year-old Sheldon Ezor,
who has, in the last 22 years, attended every single home game
of the New Jersey Nets. And yes, that does include the evening
of April 19, 1995, his 50th wedding anniversary. "I took Estelle
to Paris after that season," he says, somewhat defensively, of
his wife. "Went over on the QE2 and flew back on the Concorde."

Ezor narrowly defeats Aldo Zuppichini, who has, for most of the
last 16 years, attended 14 to 18 Nets road games per season,
plus damn near every home game. Five years ago, while driving
from a Nets game in Seattle to a Nets game in Vancouver,
Zuppichini was asked, by a customs official at the Canadian
border, to state the purpose of his visit. "Nets-Grizzlies
game," he replied. Zuppichini was promptly detained--and
interrogated--for the next 60 minutes.

"They weren't buying it," says the 37-year-old sales executive.
"And I guess I don't blame them."

See, any nitwit can follow the Nets now, as they play in the
Eastern Conference finals for the first time in the team's 26
unstoried seasons in the NBA. But to literally follow the
franchise--which has moved from Teaneck, N.J., to Long Island to
Piscataway to East Rutherford, and now has designs on
Newark--well, that takes a real kook. "I was there when we
really stunk," says Ezor. "When Chris Morris was wearing TRADE
on his left sneaker and ME on his right."

Morris is a prototypical ex-Net, a man who once walked into a
hotel bar and told the piano man, "Play some Picasso."

"Don't forget Stinka," says Nets fan Louis Del Forno of
notorious ex-Net Yinka Dare, who once asked if the C on
Timberwolves captain Christian Laettner's jersey stood for
Caucasian. Or so claimed Jayson Williams, the ex-Net who now
stands charged with manslaughter in the shooting death of his
chauffeur.

With fans like Del Forno and Zuppichini and Frank (the Human
Possession Arrow) Capece--and actors Danny Aiello and James
Gandolfini--Nets crowds can be mistaken for a Scorsese casting
call. Lavish pompadours are everywhere in evidence at
Continental Hairlines Arena, and indeed New Jersey is
synonymous, in the national imagination, with big hair.

"And The Sopranos," says Zuppichini.

"And toxic waste," says his pal Tom Shelton.

"And 'Which exit?'" says their pal Rick Esterow of the wearying
question frequently put to natives of the turnpike-cleaved
Garden State when they say they're from Jersey: "Yeah? Which
exit?"

The Nets reside at Exit 16W, in an unloved arena that the state
pays the team $31,000 per game to occupy. Until this season, its
most historic basketball moment may have been the night Patrick
Ewing of the Knicks scored 20 consecutive points against the
Nets. "And the 'home' crowd," says Nets fan John Hester,
referring to the legions of New York rooters who had made the
trip across the Hudson, "was chanting dee-fense whenever we had
the ball."

Hester is now renowned in North Jersey as the guy who leads
postseason throngs in the "N-E-T-S Nets Nets Nets!" cheer. "But
for many years," says the 31-year-old father of four, "my own
father threatened to call Dyfus on me for taking my daughters to
these games." DYFS--the Division of Youth and Family
Services--investigates claims of child abuse in New Jersey.

So when the Nets defeated the Hornets last week and washed
ashore on the terra incognita of the conference finals, Sheldon
Ezor thought of the long, hard toll road he has traveled: those
freakish nights after games in Piscataway when he drove home--in
dense fog, at two miles an hour--with his car door open and his
head thrust out like a Labrador's, eyeballing the perforated
white line of the Turnpike all the way home to Paterson.

And Aldo Zuppichini of Fort Lee recalled those few Nets games of
the last decade that he couldn't attend, when business required
him to be on an airplane. He always called his buddy Shelton
from 35,000 feet and had him hold the phone to the radio for the
fourth quarter. "For the cost of one Airfone call," Zuppichini
says, "I could've bought courtside seats."

Improbably, you can't buy courtside seats to the Nets anymore,
now that Jason Kidd has taken his place in Jersey lore alongside
legends like Jimmy Hoffa, who is said to have a really permanent
seat license next door, beneath the east end zone of Giants
Stadium. The Nets guard has become, in one season, the state's
third-most-popular citizen. And the first two are insuperable.

"My dream," says Zuppichini, "is to see the Nets in the Finals.
And to have Bruce Springsteen--who symbolizes New Jersey--sing
the national anthem before Game 1." He pauses, then decides to
press his luck: "And Bon Jovi before Game 2. That would be
perfect."

And then Aldo Zuppichini looks far away, lost in a Garden of
Eden state.

COLOR PHOTO: PETER GREGOIRE

Any nitwit can follow the Nets now. But to literally follow the
franchise--well, that takes a real kook.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)