Even as Nets losses go, it was a mind-blower, one for the books. The crummy Celtics were in town, and things looked pretty safe. When you're up by two (after blowing a seven-point lead in the final minute) with 1.8 seconds left and have possession, things should be safe. All Lucious Harris had to do was inbound the ball into the backcourt and the clock would run out. But Harris, seized by whatever fever affects ballplayers when they're Nets, instead tried to pass to Aaron Williams, who muffed it. The ball was picked up by one Milton Palacio, the Celts' little-used backup point guard. Falling, nearly flat on his back, Palacio swished a prayer from 30 feet. It was Palacio's only basket of the game, the first three-pointer of his career, and it gave Boston a 112-111 victory.
Later, in the hushed locker room (where even beat reporters felt the tug as red-eyed Lucious Harris, asked if his "heart sank" when Palacio's shot went in, dolefully replied, "If I can find my heart"), Stephon Marbury, former resident point-guard genius of Brooklyn's Lincoln High School, the most brilliant progeny of the Coney Island Marburys -- a basketball dynasty to rank with the McGuires of Rockaway -- and the best Net since the mythic times of Julius Erving, attempted to put the best face on the situation.
This one was "hard to swallow," Marbury said, but "to me, all losses are devastating. It's just that there are a lot of them."
Half an hour later, splendiferously attired in an ocher shirt, chocolate-and-gold silk tie, four-button jacket under a leather spaghetti-Western duster, diamond stick pin in his ear, Marbury walked into the stark lower lobby of the Continental Airlines Arena, ignored autograph seekers, and fell into his mother's arms.
It is a ritual. After every home game, members of Stephon's famously close family -- his mom, wife, kids, sisters, brothers, old buds and new -- gather round to celebrate a win or, much more often, console him following a Net loss. Amid the faceless celebrity of pro athletics, it is a touching scene, watching the 23-year-old millionaire superstar crook his lush eyebrows and break out into a boyish smile when surrounded by his people. After all, Marbury -- who has tattoos bearing the names of his immediate family, along with a florid coney island's finest on his biceps -- has always been about home. According to him, it wasn't money or jealousy over Kevin Garnett's contract that made him leave Minnesota, where he and K.G. could have formed a tandem way more fly than Karl Malone and John Stockton for the next decade or so.
It was "getting home," Marbury says. "Always about home."
And no doubt, back in 1999, being a Net must have seemed sweet. It wasn't the Garden; it was the swamp, a two-thirds-filled building with acoustics to quell rare outbursts of fan enthusiasm, a strained circus of goofy mascots, and less-foxy cheerleaders. But the Jersey team, with wisecracking rebound demon Jayson Williams and silky Keith Van Horn, was young and fast. They had promise, more than the creaking Knicks. With a Big City natural like Stephon at the point, this was a team that could get somewhere. A team that could win.
Except there was a problem. With the Nets, there is always a problem. Williams broke his leg, broke his foot, then retired. Kerry Kittles's knee blew up. Van Horn, tighty-whitey socks up to his knees, will never be Larry Bird, it seems, or even Johnny Kerr. No. 1 pick Kenyon Martin, another guy with a broken leg, might have bad ass yellow boy tattooed on his chest but, despite a recent triple-double, will need a big P.R. push to be rookie of the year. Coach Byron Scott, who spent a career filling lanes alongside Magic Johnson, James Worthy, and Kareem, has increasingly taken on the un homme condamné aspect of predecessors like Butch Beard, Don Casey, and John Calipari, lambasting his team as lacking in "courage" and playing "like women." What's left is Marbury, the nonpareil, who finds himself out there on the break with no trailer save Vladimir Stepania, who you know will blow the layup. Which may explain why Marbury caused a stink last year by writing all alone on his sneakers.
"Stephon's on an even keel," said one of the Marbury party after the Boston game. "But sometimes it gets to him. Nights like tonight. It feels like a curse."
There it was: Someone had uttered the C-word. The Curse word. The Curse of the Nets.
When it comes to the Curse of the Nets, an ever-expanding annal of calamity both heartwrenchingly sad and mind-bendingly dumb, the Milton Palacio Memorial Heave (which caused Albert King, ex-Net and current radio color man, to throw down his headset and shout "That didn't happen!" at the top of his lungs) is pretty much small potatoes. It pales before such incidents as Drazen Petrovic's car crash, Wendell Ladner's plane crash, Darryl Dawkins's slipping in the bathtub, the trade of Bernard King for Rich Kelley (the world's tallest Irishman), the four seasons in Piscataway (which prompted Maurice Lucas to say, "They told me the Nets were hell, but they didn't say hell was in Piss-cat-get-away"), Derrick Coleman's "whoop-de-damn-doo," and the soon-to-be-banned-for-dope Micheal Ray Richardson's existential parting shot, "You live, you learn, you die and forget it all."
Still, on the night of Palacio's shot, Coney Island's Stephon Marbury, heir to the snare of Jersey hopes and dreams, was letting it get to him.
Wandering off from his family, Marbury walked past the arena's misnomered Winners Club and down a narrow hallway where he placed his regal-domed head against the cinder-block wall, rocked back and forth, and sighed.
Among the celebratedly cursed franchises in sports history, the Nets share with the Boston Red Sox the distinction that a single act, one really bad move, could bring down the wrath of the ball gods forever. As the Sox sold Babe Ruth for $100,000 in 1920, on October 20, 1976 (after winning two ABA championships), then-Nets owner Roy Boe, desperate for cash, sold Julius Erving, the one and only Dr. J, to the Philadelphia 76ers for $3 million.