What a difference new ownership, steady paychecks and a few victories has made in that once'beleaguered franchise, the New Jersey Nets.
The former orphans of the NBA, the Nets, who face the Washington Bullets tonight at 8 o'clock in Capital Centre, have yet to taste defeat in the delicious opening moments of the new season. They won four straight exhibition games and have survived two fourth-quarter folding acts to take the first two contests of the regular season.
This is the same club that got off to a 3-22 start last season and stood 9-40 at the end of January before winning 15 of its last 33 games. It may take a while for them to establish full credibility this time around, but the Nets are beginning to look like this season's answer to the Atlanta Hawks, the surprise of the 1977-78 campaign.
"We think we are for real," said fast Eddie Jordan, the ex-Carroll High flash who has emerged in his second season as an outstanding third guard. "We now have an attitude of winning. Once you get on that level, it makes things a lot easier."
The team has many of the same faces which finished last season. But a combination of maturity and a few important changes has altered the Nets' fortunes. And not all of the differences involve players.
Former owner Roy Boe, beseiged by debts and lawsuits, finally unloaded the team in September. Jordan says his new bosses "are millionaires, but casual guys. They made a good impression on us."
They are paying everyone on time. Jordan, for one, had a paycheck bounce this summer and he says some of his teammates couldn't cash three or four vouchers over the same period. And although the Nets still play their home games at Rutgers, ground has been broken for their new facility at the New Jersey Meadowlands, which should be ready in 1980.
"Things are cool now." he said. "We were concerned sure, but what could any of us do? If the team folded we figured we would have a dispersal draft and hopefully we could cathc on with other clubs.
"When I first joined the team (from Cleveland in December) things were so up in the air it had to affect everyone. You were reading all the time about how bad the situation was. Now we can concentrate on basketball and nothing else."
Coach Kevin Loughery has reshaped what once was the American Basketball Association's most powerful team.
The five guards who began with the club last season are no longer on the roster. Loughery brought in John Williamson from Indiana, Jordan from Cleveland, Eric Money (in trade for Kevin Porter) from Detroit and drafted swing man Winford Boynes from the University of San Francisco.Former rookie sensation Bernard King holds down one forward while Wilson Washington, who has seads of raw ability, is the big forward. George Johnson, the league's leading shot-blocker last season, is the center, backed up by another surprise, free agent Bob Elliott.
"We've had a year, almost, to play together," said Jordan. "That's really done wonders for us. We know each other and we know better what is expected of us. This is a young team and I think we are going to keep getting better and better."
Jordan typifies the Nets' youth and maturity. He has accepted his role as a reserve and now says he doesn't worry about starting, "just making sure I do well enough to play enough minutes. If I do a super job as a reserve, I'll stay in this league and have a job and that's what I'm concerned about."
After serving both as a shooting and point guard last year, Jordan now is solely a playmaker backing up Money. Loughery uses him to change the tempo of games, both with his speed and his quick defensive hands. Against Los Angeles Saturday night, for example, he had five steals in 18 minutes.
"He's given me the green light," said Jordan. "He lets me do what I can do best and that has to help your confidence. I don't feel like a rookie anymore."
Jordan's basketball career has taken off since his days at Douglass Junior High and Carroll High, where he never was the leading player on his team. Even in college at Rutgers, he was overshadowed by Phil Sellers and Mike Dabney.
Jordan is 6-foot-1, the only player from either his high school or college squad to make it to the pros.