A History of Professional Sports in New Jersey
Max Miller • Jun 14, 2017
Near and dear to many New Jerseyans' hearts is the success of their favorite professional sports teams. Setting aside the debatable importance of sports in society, this contributor is staunch in his defense of sports' existence at the heart of New Jersey culture. I will keep this defense to a few sentences, but refer to this website's homepage: a plea for New Jerseyans to come together, whether white or black, Asian or Hispanic, rich or poor, suburban or urban (or rural!), and join in our appreciation of New Jersey. Sports are known as the great equalizer: no matter your socioeconomic background, one can always discuss the recent game with a stranger. "How about that local sports team?" A refrain commonly heard. Given our placement in the Northeast, where popularity of college sports is at a geographic nadir, professional sports are a valuable tool in bonding and relationship-building, whether amongst friends, parents and children, or coworkers. Therefore, with this spirit in mind, I embark on a concise but hopefully comprehensive history of professional sports in this great state.
The New Jersey Devils
The Devils are the only team of the 4 majors that claim New Jersey as their home. Given that there are some teams that do play in New Jersey but do not use New Jersey in their name (we'll get to them later), we can praise the Devils for having the required Jersey Pride, and thusly they get top billing.The Devils moved to New Jersey in 1982, after 2 seasons as the Kansas City Scouts and 6 seasons as the Colorado Rockies. New Jersey trucking tycoon Arthur Imperatore (also the founder of NY Waterway) purchased the team in 1978 with the intention of moving the team to his home state; however, construction was still ongoing on the ostensible home of the Devils. In 1982, the Brendan Byrne Arena was completed, and the Devils (under the new ownership of Jersey City native John McMullen) were born. I will cover more about the Brendan Byrne Arena, of which you are probably familiar under a different name, later. The Devils were named, of course, after the Jersey Devil, a (mythical?) creature that inhabits the Pine Barrens of Southern Jersey. I expect the legend of the Jersey Devil will be covered elsewhere on this site. The Devils languished in mediocrity for much of their early existence. However, they began to build a core of solid players in the early '90s, which resulted in consistent playoff appearances. They won their first Stanley Cup in 1995, and followed that up with Cups in 2000 and 2003. Indeed, between 1995-2012, the Devils made the playoffs every year but two, becoming a model of consistency. Since the 2011-12 season, where they lost in the Stanley Cup Finals to the LA Kings, they seem to have taken a downturn, missing the playoffs in the 3 subsequent seasons. You'll excuse my glossing over the more specific aspects of the Devils' success as your contributor is not a huge fan of hockey. It should be noted, however, that the Devils moved from the Meadowlands to the Prudential Center in Newark in 2007, marking the decline of the Meadowlands as a sports hub.
The New Jersey Nets
In 15 years or so, there will be a whole generation of Brooklynites unaware that the Brooklyn Nets were once called the New Jersey Nets. Indeed, from 1977-2012, the Nets played in New Jersey. Most basketball fans are aware that the Nets once were known as the New York Nets, playing in the ABA. However, the Nets played their inaugural season in 1967 as the New Jersey Americans in Teaneck, NJ, making them a true NJ organization. Their move to the NBA and subsequently to NJ cost them millions of dollars and their star player, "Dr." Julius Erving, due to the monopolistic demands of the NBA and the New York Knicks. This, along with some poor injury luck and traded drafted picks, caused the Nets to settle into the lower tier of NBA organizations for much of their existence, rarely finding success. In their 35 seasons in New Jersey (not including that first season), the Nets compiled an overall regular season record of 1186-1636 (0.420).The Nets had some moderate success in the 1980s, but their true golden age in New Jersey was the early 2000s, where they reached the NBA Finals twice consecutively. Led by Jason Kidd, Kenyon Martin, Richard Jefferson, and Kerry Kittles, they reached heights previously not seen in New Jersey basketball. Unfortunately, this was a time of great imbalance between NBA conferences, and the Nets were swept in the 2002 Finals by the Kobe and Shaq-led Lakers, and lost 4-2 in the 2003 Finals to Tim Duncan's Spurs.Regardless of results, it was a magical time to be a Nets fan. This contributor and his dad had a 1/6 share of season tickets at the Continental Airlines Arena, and got to know some of the more famous fans. Especially memorable fans included the older man who would wear Hawaiian shirts and show off his dance moves for the stadium camera, and the guy on the 2nd level would lead the N-E-T-S chants. Also, one time, playing the Detroit Pistons in the playoffs, Rasheed Wallace's mom sat behind us and almost got in a fight with Nets fans.When it comes down to it, the Meadowlands is simply not a good place for a sports franchise. After the decline of this particular Nets team, attendance dropped dramatically, and owner Bruce Ratner decided it would be best to move the Nets to Brooklyn. After two seasons playing at the Prudential Center in Newark, the move was official, and they became the Brooklyn Nets. While there was a great ado about the Nets' move, replete with ridiculous trades for older veterans, massive luxury tax bills, claims of a championship in 5 years, and endorsements by rap moguls, the Brooklyn Nets have advanced to the second round of the playoffs once. In this current season (2015-16), they are paying their dues, sitting at 2nd to last in the conference without a draft pick next year.While this will never happen, this contributor strongly advocates a return to Newark. It would give the team a lot more character and would be a recognizance of the fact that the millennial obsession with Brooklyn is somewhat soulless. Unfortunately, money rules, and Brooklyn remains infinitely more profitable than Newark could ever be.
A Couple Minor League Teams Of Note
Newark Bears - Baseball
The Bears, now defunct, operated from 1998-2014. Separate from the MLB network of farm teams, the Bears played at Bears & Eagles Riverfront Stadium, visible from the Morris & Essex NJT line. It was a traditional outing in this contributor's elementary school days to go to a Bears game once a year with the entire class. Jose Canseco, in the twilight of his career, played half a season with the Bears, perhaps the most famous Newark Bear of all time.
New Jersey Jackals - Baseball
Another NJ baseball team independent of the MLB. They play in Yogi Berra Stadium in Little Falls, NJ. I went to a Jackals game once and forgot to bring a mitt, so I tried to catch foul balls in an empty popcorn bucket.
New Jersey Gladiators - Arena Football
Now located in Cleveland, the Gladiators played two seasons in the Meadowlands. I went to a Gladiators game once and got the autograph of every player on the team, thinking they would be priceless.
New Jersey Hitmen - XFL
The XFL, the short-lived experimental combination of football and wrestling, had one of its 8 inaugural teams located in New Jersey, named the Hitmen, hearkening to NJ's mafia roots. The Hitmen played in the XFL's first game, losing to the Las Vegas Outlaws 19-0. The Hitmen finished their only season 4-6, missing out on the playoffs.
A lot of people get very upset by the fact that the New York Jets and the New York Giants play their home games in New Jersey. A popular football column, Tuesday Morning Quarterback, refers to the teams as Jersey/A (Giants) and Jersey/B (Jets), ostensibly disparagingly. At some point, we have to recognize that the empty swamplands of southern Bergen County are more or less up for grabs. They are by no means central to NJ's identity, despite many out-of-towners' claims to the contrary. If these teams choose not to embrace NJ as their homeland, who are we to get upset about it?