Andrew Bynum, J.R. Smith and Al Harrington are just some of the players who have jumped to the NBA straight out of high school. Their other common thread? They’re all from New Jersey. For a state that is only slightly bigger than Rhode Island, New Jersey has produced some of the best basketball players in the world.
Last year, New Jersey was the number one state in the country for high-school basketball, according to highschoolsports.net. Two years ago, the No. 1 and No. 2 high schools in the country (St. Anthony’s and St. Patrick’s) were both from New Jersey—not New York, California or Texas.
Kyrie Irving, the No. 1 pick in the 2011 draft, is just one of the NBA-caliber players who are alumni from St. Patrick’s High School, located in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Another one is Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who just won an NCAA championship with the Kentucky Wildcats and is projected to be a top-three pick in this year’s NBA draft.
New Jersey is a basketball state. Yet, for all its basketball acumen, the New Jersey Nets have never been able to attract a large fanbase. There are copious amounts of reasons for this, but here are just two.
One is because of geography and two is because of culture.
New Jersey is sandwiched between two major cities: New York City and Philadelphia. It’s not unusual for people to live in New Jersey, but work and play in Manhattan and Philadelphia. As a result, the state of New Jersey is a cultural hybrid of these two cities. Yes, it has its own identity: taylor ham, Bon Jovi and the mafia. But, the byproduct is a mixture of the two metropolises.
To make things even more complicated, the New York Giants and the New York Jets actually play in Northern Jersey. Since New Jersey sports fans don’t have their own football team, they’re either Giants and Jets fans if they live in the north or Eagles fans if they live in the South. The same goes for baseball with the Yankees, Mets and Phillies.
However, basketball is different. New Jersey actually has its own team. But when you have a culture where everyone in New Jersey is either a New York or a Philly fan, it makes it hard to build your local fanbase and identity. Case in point, do NJ Nets fans now become Brooklyn Nets fans? And what happens if New Jersey gets another team? Where does your allegiance lie to them?
A poker dealer once said that the difference between Vegas' success and Atlantic City's lack of success was culture. He said that people go to Atlantic City to gamble, but people go to Vegas to have fun. And when people go somewhere to have fun, they don’t mind if they lose money. The mindset is totally different because the culture is different.
What New Jersey needs is a change of mindset from a change of culture. The governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie, refused to attend the last Nets game in franchise history because he’s the kind of culture changer that New Jersey needs.
Christie went on to say that the Nets play “in one of the country’s most vibrant cities, and they want to leave here and go to Brooklyn? Good riddance, see you later.” While, the comment may come off a bit sophomoric, it’s precisely the type of swagger that New Jersey needs to find its own culture and identity.
Whether New Jersey gets another team or not is still to be determined. But, talks are already in the works, and by the right types of people. Shaquille O’Neal, a native of Newark, spoke about his own desire to bring a team back to New Jersey. In a recent Star Ledger article, he said:
Yes, still working on it, still having conversations and still doing certain things to help beautify this city. When the time is right, we’ll have a party. I don’t want to say things that are out of pretext or context. There’s things going on, we’re working on it, trust me. We’re working on it every day.
While the verdict is still out for whether New Jersey can get another NBA team, Shaq is one of the few culture-changers that can resurrect the Jersey fanbase the way Greg Schiano has done for Rutgers football. It can happen. Culture can change. Just take one look at the Empire State Building during college football season and it's scarlet red with envy that Rutgers football is in New Jersey and not in New York.