Mon, May 26, 2003 - Page 20 News List

Maybe the organization just can't stand success

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NEW YORK

You'd think the New Jersey Nets, from top down, would be dancing in the street, united under one banner of success, ecstatic over the prospect of a great triumph.

Instead of celebrating, there is an underground campaign to oust Lou Lamoriello, the team's chief executive, whose hard-nosed leadership played a large role in bringing the Nets from chumps to champions.

This once-forlorn franchise is a victory from continuing one of the most sensational turnabouts in sports: back-to-back Eastern Conference championships after so many years of gloom. Yet Lamoriello is on the hot seat. Let's get this straight: The hockey team he runs is playing for the Stanley Cup, the basketball team he has led out of the valley of doom is a game from the NBA finals, and Lamoriello is feeling heat.

This is not a plea for "Poor Lou." Lamoriello is not the sort of figure who elicits sympathy. He is not a hat-in-hand executive who makes his case in the news media and seeks the limelight. He is a professional who doesn't believe in being warm and cuddly when it comes to running sports organizations.

The Nets used to be warm and cuddly and dysfunctional. They lost much more than they won and were run like a variety store where ownership treated the players like toys instead of professionals. Lamoriello has ruled the Nets, and its owners, with an iron fist. He was the person for this moment in the team's history. Three seasons ago, the Nets were one of the worst-run organizations in the NBA Now the franchise is a victory from reaching its second consecutive NBA finals, with a good shot at winning its first championship.

With no performance issues to attack, Lamoriello's critics have zeroed in on the Nets' failure to draw. The Nets, they point out, sold out only eight of their 41 regular-season home games. The average attendance at Continental Arena was 15,185, ranking the Nets 23rd among the 29 teams in the NBA Only two of the Nets' six playoff games this spring have sold out.

The Nets don't draw like a championship-caliber team because they haven't won a championship, and have been successful at a high level for only two seasons. It takes time to build a following and gain the public's trust.

Beyond that, who wants to go to the Swamp to watch a basketball game? The area needs to be revitalized -- no, transformed -- into an oasis with stores, restaurants and attractions that make going to a Nets game a multifaceted event.

With Newark all but out of the picture, this is the most plausible Plan B to make the Nets a draw. Either way, Lamoriello has done his part to make the Nets a championship contender. He joined the Nets as CEO in June 2001, and his first order of business was making sure the Stephon Marbury-for-Jason Kidd deal was done. The Kidd trade was pending; Rod Thorn, the Nets' general manager, wanted to make the deal, but at least one of the Nets' owners was attached to Marbury and was reluctant to pull the trigger for fear of committing another Julius Erving blunder. Erving, the most popular Net ever, was traded to Philadelphia in 1976, sending the Nets into a funk that the franchise never seemed able to shake.

Lamoriello stepped in and told the Nets' board to either let Thorn make the trade or fire him; either support his decision and do the trade, or don't make the trade and get rid of Thorn. That was how Lamoriello's regime began: Thorn made the deal, and Lamoriello made the decision to get the deal done.

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