Commentary

The Devils of Newark

Updated: April 27, 2012, 12:12 PM ET
By Jeff MacGregor | ESPN.com

1.

Game 7 is out of town.

For a long time Newark, N.J., was just a city. Then it became a symbol. Then a metaphor. The unemployment rate this week is 15 percent. It's hard to live in a metaphor.

2.

[+] EnlargeCherry Blossoms
Getty ImagesThe cherry trees bloomed early in Newark, N.J., this year.

In the spring, down in Branch Brook Park, where the water runs in its channel past the cherry trees, hundreds of people still walk among the blossoms. There are more cherry trees in Newark than along the Tidal Basin in Washington. In March and April the trees bloom pink and red and white, and wedding parties and whole families rush to take their pictures here. Everywhere you turn is life and color, and the old couples stroll and young lovers neck beneath the branches and kids run rings around the trees as the petals fall and drift like snow.

Despite this, or because of it, Newark feels like a lost place today. Exhausted. As if something powerful and centrifugal came unweighted here a long time ago, something essential, something more important even than jobs or money or opportunity, and spun away. Sadness has heft, a density. Newark is a vacuum, an absence. Like you can't get enough air.

3.

At 8 o'clock they open the doors of the Prudential Center and more than a thousand Devils fans file in to watch this last game against the Panthers. Most are wearing souvenir jerseys, and most of those are Martin Brodeur's 30. A few old-schoolers wear Neal Broten's 9 or Ken Daneyko's 3.

The game is up on the scoreboard big screen, a television the size of your garage door. When Adam Henrique scores the game's first goal just 1:29 into the opening period, the horn blows and the place erupts.

"There it is! There it is!"

Close your eyes and the noise and the music and the smell of the chicken fingers and the popcorn and the aftershave is like any other game night.

4.

When the Devils moved here from the Meadowlands a few years ago, not only were they anchoring a new urban improvement strategy, they were moving from no place to someplace.

Out there in the wetlands the team felt locationless, attached to nothing, allied to no one. Fans commuted to a parking lot and a barn strung between two population centers. A perfect nowhere. Just the Jets, the Giants, the wind in the reeds, and all that existential dread.

Still, the Devils won the Cup three times out there among the cattails. And attendance was better. Now the tabloids say they may be in money trouble. No one's even sure if they can afford to keep their captain, Zach Parise.

5.

[+] EnlargeDevils Fans
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesThe Devils bring fans to Newark (in this photo for Game 3 vs. the Panthers).

"This is New Jersey's only real team," they'll tell you. "The Jets, the Giants? All New York. Liberty, too. The New Jersey Devils are New Jersey's only real team." These are steel-gray brushcut and goatee guys up from the center of the state. Emphatic. You can see the italics when they lean in to yell over the music. Two-thirds of this fan base comes from somewhere else. They drive up on the Turnpike or down the Garden State Parkway or come in on the trains.

The Devils are cruising 2-0.

6.

The Nets are gone. Gov. Chris Christie bid them farewell. They were a steady draw downtown. Now Cory Booker, Newark's hero mayor, has to reimagine and somehow reinvent the 41 NBA game nights a year that fled to Brooklyn.

Places like the Edison Ale House and the Brick City Bar and Grill and the Arena Lounge depend on that business. Half a block away, out on Broad Street -- an inventory of ugly government buildings and discount nursing shoes and the oldest church in the city -- it's hard to see that anything can make any difference at all.

The WNBA Liberty are still here. The Red Bulls of the MLS are here, too, sort of, in a little space donut of a stadium on the Harrison waterfront, just across the Passaic River. Maybe 18 home dates a year. Not enough to make many jobs.

7.

Late in the game the Devils give up two goals and find themselves tied with the Panthers at the end of regulation. Kids and parents fidget and rub their eyes in the sudden quiet.

8.

Walk through the train station, walk around downtown on a night without a game, without a concert, and the whole city feels provisional, like something you've imagined. Turn your back on it and it disappears. Unpinned from history, the Newark of Philip Roth and Sarah Vaughan is long gone. What might replace it has been in dispute for half a century.

9.

Twelve-hundred miles away, as midnight comes and goes, the New Jersey Devils win Game 7 in the second overtime. Most of the fans are still in their seats. They rise as the horn blows.

Now everybody gets another chance at the future.

10.

We read about cities trying to save their teams. Can any team help save a city? Sports are just another symbol, after all. Sports can save us. Sports can't save us.

It's hard to live in a metaphor. "Remember, this is New Jersey's only real team."

The series with Philadelphia starts Sunday.



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