The New York Islanders announced yesterday that they’ll move from their home of 40 years, the Nassau Coliseum, to the new Barclays Center in Brooklyn for the 2015 season. They are the last of the teams of my youth to still play in the arenas where I first rooted for them.
I saw the Yankees and the football Giants in the original Yankee Stadium, and the Miracle Mets at Shea — two ballparks that have since been torn down and replaced by newer versions on the same turf. But for a few years in my teens, I spent more time in The Coliseum than both of those stadiums combined.
My brother, Seth, and I were thrilled when The Coliseum opened in 1972. It was less than a half-hour’s drive from where I grew up, so it was easier to get to than the Commack Arena, where we’d go occasionally go to see the minor-league LI Ducks play hockey. But this was a step up to the NHL, with a brand new team in a brand new building, which was also the new home of the New York Nets of the ABA.
Seth and I used to drive my father crazy asking him to take us to see both teams as often as possible. Dad, who couldn’t have cared less about sports, would give in a few times a year. We couldn’t afford seats up close, but a cheap pair of binoculars helped us keep our eye on the puck from way up in the corner, and we were happy just to be there, munching on popcorn as we tried to follow the action. Unlike the Rangers and Knicks, which were housed in Madison Square Garden and had all of their games on the radio (with Marv Albert handling play-by-play), the only way to know what was happening at an Islanders game was to go to the Coliseum and witness it in person — they had no broadcast partners.
If we liked the Islanders, we loved the Nets. I don’t remember the team’s history, but I certainly recall copying Rick Barry’s underhand free-throws just like every other kid on The Island. And there was the phenomenon known as Dr. J — Julius Erving — who flew through the air with his giant afro and made remarkable shots long before Michael Jordan. For kids too short to even touch the rim, we were regularly astounded watching Dr. J take two steps from the top of the key, launch himself from the foul line, twist mid-air around two defenders, and jam the ball through the basket.
In May, 1976, Seth and I pulled off our greatest coup as Nets fans. The team was playing the Denver Nuggets for the ABA Championship, leading the series 3-2. We’d heard rumors that this would be the last year of the ABA, which would merge some of its teams into the NBA the following month. Thinking this would be our last chance to ever see our beloved Nets, we begged and cajoled Dad to take us to the game — and buy some good seats for once. We probably agreed to do extra chores, or chip in some of our allowance, but Dad finally relented and somehow got three seats about 10 rows behind the Nets bench.
We could not have been more excited, except that the game wasn’t going well. In the third quarter, the Nuggets were up by 22 points, but everything changed in the fourth quarter as Dr. J went on a tear and led the Nets to victory and their second championship in three years. Seth and I joined hundreds of fans in storming the court. I headed for one of the baskets, and got there just as another guy jumped up and grabbed the rim. I jumped, too, but could only reach high enough to wrap my arms around his shoulders while another fan jumped on me and tried to climb over us. I looked up just in time to see the backboard shatter from our combined weight and plexiglass pieces rained down on us. I let go and fell to the floor, where I found Seth gathering up as many shards as he could as souvenirs. They’re probably still in a bag in Mom’s basement to this day.
Eventually, security guards got all of us off the floor, so we headed for the exits, screaming with excitement as we reunited with Dad. Even Dad got caught up in it, greeting us with a huge smile as we walked to the parking lot. Our Nets had won the last game ever to be played in the ABA.
We never went to another sporting event at the Coliseum. The Nets (and 3 other ABA teams) joined the NBA the following season, but after one more year, they moved to a new sports complex in New Jersey. I stopped rooting for them around that time, and didn’t go to any more Islanders games, either. By then, I was in college, so the only use I had for The Coliseum was when it hosted rock concerts.
In the ensuing years, I moved on to other towns and adopted their home teams as mine. But the memories of those nights inside that concrete building in Uniondale still linger.