Stephon Vs. the Curse

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.

“It’s funny,” laughs John Nash, who worked for the Sixers then and has been the Nets’ general manager for the past five years. “Back in Philly, our owner, Fitz Dixon, wanted to know who this guy Erving was that he should be worth so much money. Pat Williams, the Sixers’ GM, told him, ‘You have to do it; this guy is the Babe Ruth of basketball.’ Pat was right, in more ways than one.”

Then Nash, who once suffered through a 9-73 season in Philly, swore up and down, as does everyone from Willis Reed (former Net coach and VP since 1990) to Larry Brown (who left the team in the lurch late in the rare winning season of 1983), that – even if the Nets almost always lead the league in injuries (272 games lost last year), and even if the team’s first-round pick in 1994, Yinka Dare, took only one shot all season and it was an air ball, and even if, in 1987, the club picked Dennis Hopson over Scottie Pippen, Kevin Johnson, Derrick McKey, Horace Grant, Reggie Miller, and Mark Jackson – there is no such thing as the Curse of the Nets.

“I’m a believer in the law of averages,” said Nash, who a few days later learned that he would be relieved of his GM duties at season’s end. “Things going badly eventually will go better. It’s cyclical. It is just the length of these cycles – that’s what concerns me.”

When it comes to the alleged Net curse, no one would expect Stephon Marbury to keep afflicted chapter and verse on wackos like Chris Morris (who wouldn’t tie his shoelaces), but the Coney Island flash might take note of the dark fate of other fabulous New York City point guards who ran afoul of whatever lurks in the swamps of Jersey. For those who cherish the magic of the schoolyard transmuted to the big stage, few Nets moments could be worse than witnessing the great Nate “Tiny” Archibald, the De Witt Clinton master, blow out his foot in the middle of the ‘76-77 season. Playing for the wandering Kansas City-Omaha Kings, Tiny led the league in both scoring and assists in the same year. Yet it took only 34 games back “home” with the Nets to steal his first step for all time.

Also depressing was the demise of Dwayne “Pearl” Washington, all-timer at Boys High, unstoppable at Syracuse, who became a pudgy little guy when the Nets took him in the first round, bouncing the ball off his foot for two seasons. Then there is the troubling matter of Kenny Anderson, of Archbishop Molloy in Queens, the most legendarily beloved of New York City ballhandlers.

A first-round pick in 1991, Anderson lasted four seasons here, even making the All-Star team during the Chuck Daly years. But it was downhill after that. Anderson is still around, kind of, playing for the Celtics. (In typical Netology, Milton Palacio was subbing for K.A. when he hit his shot.) Always scrawny, Anderson looks these days like a Calista Flockhart knockoff in his Kelly-green uniform.

So, even as Marbury sank two three-pointers to win the 2001 All-Star game, fans wondered: What does the Curse have in store for Stephon, potentially the greatest of NYC court sorcerers?

Able to squat-press 600 pounds (“He’s one of the five strongest guys in the league, pound for pound,” says Nets strength coach Rich Dalatri), Stephon isn’t going to waste away like Kenny Anderson. Still, Marbury has five more years on his contract, which could take him to the opening of the Nets’ long-promised downtown-Newark arena, a city-renewing venue change that is probably the team’s best shot at karmic redemption. But five years is a long time in the NBA, a Joycean eternity amid the mists of loss, even for a talent as adeptly Daedalusian as Stephon’s. That’s five more years of having to do too much for a likely undertalented team, five more years of getting his body banged around, five more years of the Curse.

“Curse of the Nets … curse of Frankenstein,” Stephon Marbury remarked in front of his locker a couple of days after the Palacio game. Intermittently friendly and distant with press guys, Marbury was in a pretty good mood, looking forward to that evening’s (brutally losing) matchup with the Orlando Magic. In his hand he held a Stephon Marbury Bobble Head Doll, a bulbous likeness of the ballplayer’s noggin swiveling on a torso bearing his No. 33. The Nets will give out thousands as a promotion, and Marbury, whose face the team has plastered on half the billboards in North Jersey, held the doll upside down, shaking it like a drumstick as he spoke.

Sure, Stephon noted, he believed in luck. Luck “controlled a lot,” he said, mordantly adding, “so what kind of luck you think we got?” But as for curses, the star shook his head: “That’s silly.”

It was then that the top flew off the Stephon Marbury Bobble Head Doll. It shot straight up in the air before bouncing across the locker floor, where it rolled to a stop in front of Kenyon Martin’s cubicle. Marbury looked down at the headless figure of himself resting on his open palm.

“Damn,” he said.

“The curse. Curse of the nets? Old Roy Boe, where did you go?” said Julius Erving. Now a vice-president for the Magic, Erving was in New York when the team came up to play the Knicks. I’d gone over to the Garden hoping to run into him (significantly or not, Erving did not show the next week in Jersey, even though his old No. 32 hangs from the rafters), and there he was: in a tan cashmere coat and hat, the incomparable Doc, greeting half the building, including several Knicks who seemed genuinely tickled to stand so close to the sainted hoop paragon.

Concurring that, with the possible exception of Buck Williams, Stephon Marbury was the best Net since himself, Erving said it wasn’t fair to say his old team was cursed because Roy Boe sold him down the turnpike for $3 million.

“I’m no Babe Ruth. I’m a much skinnier guy! Don’t make me responsible for any voodoo.”

Julius shook his head. “The Nets, oh, the Nets. Lots of times, I thought they were going to turn the corner. But something always happened. Somebody went down. Someone quit. A funny bounce.”

Then someone was asking about the old ABA Nets, who played and won at the Nassau Coliseum, near where Erving grew up in Roosevelt, one more local guy starring for the home team. And how great was that – plying the lonely Long Island parkways, a hoops pilgrim going to see an Afro-headed angel named Doc fly spread-eagle through the air with a red-white-and-blue ball?

“Those are good memories,” Doc said softly. “Some memories you hold on to, and some – they’re just better if you let them go.” That got to the heart of it, right there, since Erving was clearly talking about the unspeakable horror that overtook his seemingly charmed life when his missing, troubled son Corry was found drowned last year in a Central Florida pond. The game was about to begin, music blaring, but the Doctor seemed lost in thought even as Donald Trump pushed through the Garden crowd to shake his hand. It got to me.

Years ago, when he was still playing, I wrote a magazine piece about the Doctor. We got on, and in exchange for a copy of Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, Erving had given me a pair of his size 16 shoes. I still have them. All three of my children have taken turns walking in Dr. J’s shoes. So now there was nothing else to do but offer some small sympathy to a guy who had provided so much pleasure simply by playing ball. In light of all that had happened, it was an unavoidable thought – if there really was a Curse of the Nets, even Julius Erving hadn’t fully escaped it.

But the Doctor, always an uplifting presence, cut through that. “You know, man,” he said suddenly, with a big smile. “In my heart, I’ll always be a Net. The Nets will always be my team.”

It was something to think about, driving out on Ocean Parkway to Lincoln High School, where one day in the late eighties, basketball coach Bob Hartstein first saw Stephon Marbury play a full-court game. Hartstein had coached Marbury’s brothers Norman, Don, and Eric, all stars for the Lincoln Railsplitters; but Stephon was something else.

“I remember it like yesterday,” Hartstein says, sitting in his office at Lincoln, the same school my mother (class of ‘38) attended. “Stephon was little then, 13 or 14, maybe five eight, 138 pounds. But you could tell this was a player like no other. Even now it kind of takes your breath away.”

After winning three city titles (including one with Stephon in 1995), Hartstein no longer coaches, but still follows Marbury, watching “almost every game.” Hartstein says it’s rough seeing the Nets get crunched. Only a couple nights before, Marbury had scored 50, but the Nets had lost to the Lakers. “It’s bad because Steph really, really hates to lose. When he was 10, he’d sit on the bench watching one of his brothers. If we lost, he’d be hysterical. It must kill him now.”

At Hartstein’s suggestion, I drove over to 31st Street between Surf and Mermaid, to “the Garden,” which is what the Marburys called the courts near the project where Steph grew up. Out in Roosevelt, there’s a similar court, with a sign: this is the place where julius erving learned to play the game of basketball. “The Garden,” being the property of the NYCHA, also had a sign. It said: this park closes at dusk, violators subject to arrest and prosecution.

It was snowing a little, so there wasn’t anyone around, the courts empty until a kid in his early teens trudged through, his sneaker treads disturbing the unbroken layer of white. This was where the Marburys played, all right, the kid said matter-of-factly. In fact, Stephon’s cousin Sebastian Telfair, currently the Lincoln point guard, still lives upstairs at Surfside Gardens, Steph’s old building. Telfair was something else, the kid said, “as good as Steph.” Asked if Telfair would wind up on the Nets along with his famous relative, the kid said, “Hope not. One’s enough.”

Stephon Vs. the Curse