In pro sports, Jersey shows it's got game

Residents savor the NBA's Nets and the NHL's Devils making it to the final rounds.

According to an article in the erudite New Yorker magazine, a joke is funnier if it includes New Jersey ... uh, make that Noo Joisey.

Well, maybe David Letterman is laughing, but no one wearing shorts in the National Basketball Association or skates in the National Hockey League is cracking jokes about the state. Not unless they want to experience a vicious check into the boards by one of the New Jersey Devils or get the ball stuffed down their throat by a tattooed New Jersey Net.

In the desolate Meadowlands - not far from where folklore says Jimmy Hoffa is laid to rest under the goal posts at Giants Stadium - these two Jersey teams are tearing up pro sports. The Devils are in the Stanley Cup finals and the Nets in the NBA championship. And, unlike the two football teams that play here but have "N.Y." in their names, the Devils and Nets are proud to use "N.J."

Parade in the parking lot

If either of them wins the title, forgettabout ticker tape streaming down the Canyon of Heroes in New York. Instead, there will be a victory parade in the vast parking lots that surround the Continental Airlines Arena, where both teams play.

It's Jersey pride, just off Exit 16W. And it's almost enough to make Tony Soprano volunteer to pay his state taxes.

The teams "are good for the economy and good for the sense of provincial pride we have," says former governor Jim Florio. "A team with Jersey in the name is a nice thing."

Of course, pride is one of those fleeting conceits - at least when it comes to these two teams. During the regular season, they have some of the easiest tickets to buy when it comes to seeing top-notch talent. Fans think this is partly because the Continental Airlines Arena has no regular public transportation, such as a subway or train, and no restaurants or other amenities around it. That's one of the reasons why there are proposals to build a new arena in Newark.

The fickle attendance is another reason why the arena was still selling tickets to the championship Nets games on Wednesday afternoon. Fans started arriving at 1 a.m. to buy the tickets. They formed a line with their cars when it started to rain. Once the skies cleared, the faithful sat in the sun for 12 hours.

Joke-weary residents

They have endured everything, so how about some New Jersey jokes? Maybe not, says Joe Maino, who has been standing in line since 4 a.m. How about the comment in the New Yorker article that humor with New Jersey in it is funnier because of "social identity scorn?" "Big deal," says Mr. Maino of Hackensack (exit 165) "They are sticking their noses up in the air too high."

Heard all the jokes, says Bob Cheevers, a resident of Union (exit 140). "They just go in one ear and out the other," he says. "I grew up in Secaucus, and everyone used to make jokes about the pig farms - and now it's a beautiful area."

In fact, New Jersey doesn't get the respect it deserves, says Mark Magyar, president of the Public Policy Center of New Jersey, based in Trenton. The state has the second highest income in the US after Connecticut. It has the ninth largest population. Famous residents include Albert Einstein and Thomas Edison.

But at the same time, Mr. Magyar says, there is the negative image - "the what exit?" state. " 'The Sopranos' kind of reinforces this - gives the state some panache in a perverse kind of way," says Mr. Magyar (no exit, please).

Maybe the championships will help to change this image, he says. "If you are sitting and watching one of the games in Houston or Kansas or California and seeing New Jersey in a positive way and place, maybe that is large enough for a major sports franchise to give the state a different connotation."

Maybe. But, did you hear the one about the two hunters from New Jersey? Uh, never mind.

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