The ball hit Phil Tozzi’s head so hard that he struggled to stand back up. It was 1999, and he’d been playing in a rec-league softball game. His 6-year-old son watched from the stands. Tozzi spent the next three years white-knuckle dizzy until doctors finally discovered the problem: His brain had slumped into his ear canal. They opened his skull and fixed him. “All of a sudden,” he says, “I was like, ‘I’m alive, damn it! I’m alive!’”
With the dizziness gone, Tozzi found that all he wanted to do was dance. “When I was a young Italian stallion, I danced then. But this was a reboot.” He turned himself into a traveling spectacle, hitting nightclubs in Vegas and the stands of Yankee Stadium in outfits that would outshine Elton John’s. But his regular stop became his favorite team’s home arena: He went to almost every Nets home game, shaking his fiftysomething booty like Saturday Night Fever is a muscular disorder.
In the team’s waning days in Newark, Tozzi was on the big screen multiple times a game—the only reliable joy in a 22-44 season. “There’s nothing else for fans to watch,” he said in April. “It’s almost more important for me to do it when the team’s like this.” The Nets seemed to see things the same way. Years ago, at Tozzi’s request, the team moved his season tickets to an aisle seat so he’d have more room to flail. “We love him,” executive vice-president Leo Ehrline said at the time. “We cherish him. He’s a character.”
But that was the past, and the Brooklyn Nets seem to have made a conscious break from it. The franchise’s new image is at once moneyed and streetwise. Even the pregame PSA has been Jay-Z-ified: It’s a taped message by Michael K. Williams, Omar from The Wire. The branding relies on a winning team to complete the package and eschews the loyalty for loyalty’s sake that had sustained Nets fandom. (The risks of this strategy have been made apparent by the empty seats at this season’s second home game.) Tozzi and his gyrations are the kind of schlocky sideshow that no longer fits.
Last season, Tozzi told team executives that he can’t swing a season ticket at Barclays Center’s higher prices; Ehrline said that they’d “work with him on a package that may make some sense,” but that never happened. “So, looks like it’s over for me and the team formerly called the Nets,” Tozzi says. But he’s not done dancing; the Nets were just one stage. “The real dancing, the real me, comes when I don’t care,” he says. “I’m just channeling that feeling. I’ll do it on the side of the road. I’ll do it in the supermarket. Nobody tells me when it’s time to dance.” This summer, he took his kids on a vacation out west. They went to a Dodgers game, and he wore a blue Austin Powers shirt. Around the seventh inning, the cameras found him, and there he was again, boogying on a Jumbotron.