NEW YORK — New Jersey Nets fan lan Koestler was in hostile territory Sunday night. The wind was whipping around Madison Square Garden, and the temperature was dropping to near freezing for the first time in weeks. Many of the people Koestler bumped into were wearing the colors of the enemy: orange and blue.
"Anyone got a ticket?" he asked about the same time his team was on the hardwood floor inside, preparing for a bitter match against the New York Knicks.
Koestler was not the only one who had come to the game in open defiance of one of the most storied basketball franchises in NBA history. Like more and more fans in the New York area, he was interested in the other basketball team, the one across the Hudson River that for so long has been the laughingstock of the NBA.
All of a sudden, the Nets, led by their dazzling point guard, Jason Kidd, are in the upper echelon of the basketball world. People are taking notice.
"I haven't really been interested in the NBA in a long time," said Koestler, an accountant in Manhattan. "This year, the Nets are exciting. I'm becoming a fan again."
Indeed, the Nets went on to win the game 114-96, and rightfully claim the title of best basketball team in the tri-state area. Moreover, with a 16-7 record, they've now taken over first place in the wide-open Eastern Conference of the NBA.
The Nets are one of several teams that have found new life in the Eastern Conference, where many of the playoff stalwarts, such as the Knicks, are aging and falling fast.
Although it's still early in a grueling 82-game NBA season, once-reliable teams like New York, Cleveland, and Miami have been replaced by the likes of New Jersey, Boston, and Detroit, all of which have young core players who improve every day.
"This was just another step for us," Nets coach Byron Scott said after beating the Knicks for the second time this season. "We just want to continue to take small steps and get better and better."
Even the Philadelphia 76ers, who won the East last year, are the owner of a losing record this year. Their star, Allen Iverson, has been hurt, and their play has been inconsistent.
The Washington Wizards, on the other hand, have climbed to a .500 record and are beginning to think about a playoff birth. Not only has Michael Jordan been his typical self, but rail-thin Richard Hamilton has emerged as an outside scoring threat who can play off the constant double teams aimed at Jordan. During a recent 7-game Wizards winning streak, Hamilton was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week.
The fluidity at the top of the standings points to an overall weakness of the Eastern Conference. It's still extremely unlikely that any of the newly successful teams will be able to challenge Western Conference powers like the L.A. Lakers, San Antonio Spurs, Sacramento Kings, and Minnesota Timberwolves.
But the emergence of new teams atop the East has added at least a touch of excitement to the NBA, whose popularity has dropped over the past 5 years.
In the case of the New Jersey Nets, they have been playing in the shadow of the Knicks for much of their 33 years. They have had only seven winning seasons in the history of the franchise and have been beset by poor front-office decisions. When their prospects were finally looking up in the early '90s, they were crushed by the off-season death of their star shooting guard, Drazen Petrovic, in a car accident in Germany.
It was not until they made a series of good draft picks and a great trade that they rebounded and got to where they are today. Kerry Kittles, Keith van Horn, and Kenyon Martin are an exciting young backbone of complementary parts.
But the real breakthrough has been Kidd, who came via a trade with the Phoenix Suns for Stephon Marbury.
Kidd, a native Californian, is considered the NBA's best passer. Not only does he spread the ball around, but he's inspired his teammates to do the same.
When all cylinders are firing, the Nets can push the ball upcourt unselfishly and finish with dramatic dunks - or whip the ball around the perimeter and hit open three-point shots.
Before the season, Kidd predicted that the Nets would be the No. 1 team in the area, and so far he's backed up his words.
What the Nets are still lacking is a reliable one-on- one scorer. And they desperately need a stronger fan base: As of this week, they were second to last in the NBA in attendance.
For the moment, they are trying to win over fans one by one.
"I'd come to see the Nets in New York, but I'm not sure if I'd go to New Jersey to see them," summed up Kelvin Sims, who was wearing a Nets cap as he made his way into Madison Square Garden. "It's a hassle to get over there, if you know what I mean."