By Eric ModelMarch Madness has many folks thinking about basketball – the college variety. We’ve been thinking of basketball, too – but in our case the Teaneck variety, circa 1967.
These days, folks around the New Jersey Nets are celebrating what they describe as 35 years of basketball in New Jersey by the franchise. As much as a celebration, this series of year-long events is a good-bye before the team departs the Garden State for the allure of a new playground, The Barclays Center, in downtown Brooklyn.
In fact, as they prepare to cut ties with our state, it is not for the first time.
Some forty odd years ago, this very franchise left New Jersey to become the New York Nets.
At that time the New Jersey team was called the ‘Americans,’ and they called Teaneck their home.
The franchise was established in 1967 as a charter member of the American Basketball Association, with trucking magnate Arthur J. Brown as the owner. Brown wanted his team to play at the 69th Regiment Armory on Manhattan’s east side, but pressure from the New York Knicks forced the Armory to back out three months before opening day.
The team was forced to move to the Teaneck Armory, and changed its name to the New Jersey Americans.
Their home was and remains quite an interesting place even though pro basketball has not been played there in over four decades.
A New Deal project was built in 1938 on 13 acres and part of the money for the Armory came from the Works Progress Administration. It was designed to house the 104th Engineers Battalion National Guard, which saw action in the Alsace during World War I and later helped create rescue trails for the Palisades Interstate Park Commission.
Down through the years the Armory played host to conventions, dances, home shows, and numerous sporting events, including roller derby and professional wrestling, professional tennis, midget auto racing and amateur boxing. It opened with a dog show. Midget-car rallies were held there. Chubby Checker and Mitch Miller sang there. And a host of political candidates, among them John F. Kennedy and Barry Goldwater, stumped there.
It was once thought of as the Madison Square Garden of Bergen County.
As for the Americans on the court, they entered that first season under head coach Max Zaslofsky, and did fairly well, averaging 2,054 fans per home game while finishing with 36 wins and 43 losses.
The Americans tied with the Kentucky Colonels for fourth place in the Eastern Division, 18 games behind the Pittsburgh Pipers, 14 games behind the Minnesota Muskies and two games behind the Indiana Pacers. (The Americans would have claimed fourth place outright in the Western Division, which was weaker that season.)A one-game playoff between the Americans and Colonels was scheduled, to be hosted by the Americans, to determine which of the two teams would advance to the playoffs in the Eastern Division semifinals.
However, the Armory was booked, forcing the Americans to scramble for a last-minute replacement. They found one in the Long Island Arena in Commack, N.Y. When the Americans and Colonels arrived for the game, they found the playing floor full of missing boards and bolts. League commissioner George Mikan forfeited the game to the Colonels due to the conditions.
In the summer of 1968, Brown decided that the Americans could not survive in New Jersey. He announced his plans to move the team into the New York area – where he had intended to base the team in the first place. They would play as the ‘New York Nets.’ Nine years later, they would return to the Garden State – first in Piscataway, and then at the newly opened Brendan Byrne Arena in the Meadowlands.
As for the Armory, in the late sixties, the building was declared unsafe because of inadequate fire exits and was closed to public events. For a long time it was used exclusively by the National Guard. The building has now come back to life as the Soccer Coliseum, a multi-field indoor soccer facility.
Further to the south in Newark, the Nets have created retro uniforms, and a special logo to mark the New Jersey years. There is even a strange slogan – “Jersey Strong Brooklyn Ready” that tries to please everyone.
Ironically, as the Nets are “ready” for Brooklyn, there is talk, some serious, back here in New Jersey about another team moving in to replace the Nets – after all there is this modern arena with all those corporate boxes in Newark. Moreover, the regional sports cable channels always have programming holes to fill.
In the meantime, for those with a sense of history, one can still go back in time with a quick visit to the Teaneck Armory. The place is virtually unchanged from its look in 1967, excepting that the ball to found sailing through the air is a soccer ball instead of a red-white and blue basketball.
Eric Model explores the “offbeat, off the beaten path overlooked and forgotten” on SIRIUS-XM Radio and at www.journeysinto.com. This article is adapted from a “Journeys into New Jersey” piece originally in New Jersey Newsroom.