BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Some who settle here are too proud to admit Brooklyn wasn’t their first choice. Priced out of Manhattan or obligated to be closer to family, they see the 718 as a fallback, a have-to instead of a want-to. Initially, anyway. Then, they warm up quickly, and eventually recite the borough’s unofficial slogan: Brooklyn, it ain’t so bad.
But the Nets? They were desperate for Brooklyn. That happens when the other option is Newark. So we’re about to witness a marriage made in hoop heaven, Brooklyn and the Nets, both on the comeback, two misunderstood souls who already lead the NBA in rebounding.
In a snap, or quicker if they beat the Knicks on opening night, Brooklyn and the Nets will shake their heads and ask: What took this get-together so long to happen? Really, they’re made for each other.
Brooklyn, a city within a city with 2.6 million people, some of whom aren’t Knicks fans. (OK, maybe eight.)
The Nets, a team that could throw bad passes into the eighth row in New Jersey without hitting a spectator.
Brooklyn, which lost the Dodgers 55 years ago and never found a replacement for Pee Wee and Jackie.
The Nets, who never really had a home since leaving Long Island 35 years ago.
This probably will not produce a championship right away, but this … will … work. Because so many people in New York never thought this would ever happen, and it did. Because there’s too much at stake for the city and the team, who have a vested interest in making sure this stays as right as it feels.
The Nets now play in a state-of-the-art arena that, like most works of art, is … interesting. The sloped, steel exterior of the Barclays Center is shaped like a comb-over. They have a celebrity partial owner in Jay-Z, born and raised nearby in the Marcy Projects.
Best of all, they have the second wealthiest owner in American professional team sports (according to Forbes), an improvement from a decade ago when the Nets were owned by seven men with eight different opinions. Mikhail Prokorov is a billionaire playboy with a keen sense of business and humor. He also has what it takes, at 6-foot-8, to look down on James Dolan, the bumbling owner of The Team That Shall Not Be Mentioned.
On a local TV show last month, Prokorov said: “I’ve have heard about this second team in New York.”
When he was introduced as owner, he vowed: “We will turn Knicks fans into Nets fans.” And then, as if to serve up an advertising facial to Dolan and the Knicks, Prokorov paid for a billboard to be erected across from the Garden, featuring him and Jay-Z with the words “Blueprint For Greatness.”
While the owner is doing his comical best to turn up the rivalry volume, which is certainly good for business, everyone else in the organization is speaking in whispers.
“If we play the Knicks four times during the season and win all four and then lose the rest, it’s going to be a bad season for us,” said GM Billy King. “Our focus is not being better than the Knicks, although I know we are close. The championship is our goal, whether that comes in Year 1 or Year 3.”
Given that Prokorov said, perhaps in half-jest, that the Nets will win a championship in three years, King is a busy man, if not a slightly nervous one.
“We want the pressure and the expectations,” said coach Avery Johnson. “I’d rather have it than lose games and watch others have it. It’s exciting. We’re tired of not having any pressure.”
That’s a lot of wishful thinking for a team coming off 22 wins in a lockout-shortened season. But the Nets freshened up in the summer, enough to turn themselves into solid playoff contenders. It all starts with Deron Williams, who re-signed when the Nets showed their commitment to winning, even after failing to get Dwight Howard. Williams and Joe Johnson form an All-Star backcourt, with Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace a capable and reliable frontcourt.
“We have a chance to win right away,” said Williams, “and that’s the reason I stayed. The whole idea of moving to Brooklyn was all about putting a team together that means something, a team that would be exciting to watch. Otherwise nobody would come. It wouldn’t have worked. I wouldn’t have stayed.”
Does Brooklyn care? Is there finally such a thing as “Nets Fever?” The temperature is best taken at Junior’s, “Home of the World’s Most Famous Cheesecake,” a local institution and sweet-tooth stop of the famous and not so famous. Over the winter, the Nets held staff meetings over breakfast at Junior’s, less than half a mile from their new offices at 15 MetroTech Center. Inside, two chairs from old Ebbets Field, home of the Dodgers, hang from a wall. There’s a photo of Spike Lee, who grew up nearby, which will not be removed despite his vow to remain aligned with the Knicks.
“There is a big difference in what the neighborhood was like before the arena was built, and now,” said Ivan Forrest, the manager of Junior’s. “It was rough. Not much good. Some bad people. Now there are lots of businesses, lots of traffic. People come in here and talk about how excited they are about the Nets. And also the arena and that whole area around it. They built it up right. It’s a place to go.”
Indeed, Flatbush and Atlantic Avenue now bustle with a mixture of chain stores and a few mom-and-pops. A new subway station just outside the front door of Barclays means fans can arrive from all points of New York and even Long Island in reasonable time (though not New Jersey). Already, the arena is booked with A-listers and proving to be a worthy entertainment option to the Garden, the self-proclaimed World’s Greatest Arena.
“This is gonna be big,” said Williams. “It already is.”
To fully understand how perfect the team is to the town is to know where they’ve been. The Nets and Brooklyn have always been a distant No. 2 to the Knicks and Manhattan, two forces just a river away although the distance could be measured in oceans, based on perception.
The Nets are on their fourth stop since leaving Long Island, with Piscataway, East Rutherford and Newark all feeling like a house but never a home. They never had a true fan base or following. Since leaving the ABA, where they won their only championships (1974, ’76), the Nets were a Turnpike Team, Exit 16W in Jersey while at the Meadowlands. That’s where they played to a sparse gathering of fans whose passion was best described in the immortal words of one of their heroes, Derrick Coleman: Whoop dee damn do.
Take a guess who had more sellouts in the ‘90s at the Meadowlands: Springsteen or the Nets? Locally and nationally, the Nets were met with indifference. They’re on the cover of Sports Illustrated now, chronicled by a story that glorifies their new digs. But there were two other, splashier SI covers with the Nets that made the NBA squirm: Coleman as the poster boy for spoiled players, and Kenyon Martin looking riled up and promoting a “Bad Ass Yellow Boy” tattoo.
Rock-bottom for the franchise arrived strangely enough during the Nets’ most glorious moment in the NBA, when Jason Kidd led them, entertainingly so, to back-to-back trips to the Finals in 2002 and ‘03. The Nets had the best team in the East in ‘02 and Kidd in his prime throwing no-look passes. Still, the local response was so muted that, at one point, the Nets piped in artificial crowd noise over the loudspeakers to fill the dead air.
“I remember being with the Jazz and going there and it wasn’t so good for the Nets,” said Williams. “No life, no support, no buzz. We can’t have that in Brooklyn. And we won’t.”
The other embarrassments were more self inflicted: Jayson Williams firing a pistol in the Meadowlands parking lot; Coleman nearly coming to blow with GM Willis Reed; Chris Morris refusing to tie his shoelaces in protest; Stephon Marbury’s mother stepping over Williams, who’d just broken a leg from a collision and moaned in pain, to tend to her son; Kidd’s wife angrily flipping through his cell phone and yelling the names of women from her courtside seat while he shot free throws. They all conspired to turn the Nets into Clippers East, a basketball punch line.
“It’s all different now,” said Avery Johnson. “This organization is committed to doing great things and bringing in great people. Our response has been terrific and the players sense that.”
Brooklyn had its heart ripped out when the Dodgers went to Los Angeles. An identity was lost, and the borough became homogeneous, glorified only by some sitcoms, a few motion pictures, but mainly existing to serve Manhattan.
The original Barclays Center plan by Bruce Ratner, a real estate mogul and former head of the Nets’ previous ownership group, was to shape the center of Brooklyn into a residential goliath, with an arena as the centerpiece. He had just purchased the Nets and wanted to use the team to leverage his chances of getting the condos built. Then came the recession and down went the idea of one-bedroom residences with million-dollar price tags. The arena was pushed through, though. Some local business and homeowners protested and went the legal route but were effectively silenced by money and political power. Long story short, Prokorov swooped in from Russia and became the deep-pockets owner and put Brooklyn back on the sporting map.
“Not every owner in professional sports is committed to winning,” said King. “Some are committed to the bottom line. He wants to win a championship and when you do that, you’re willing to make bold decisions.”
The Nets have a star in Williams, which is almost necessary in New York, along with a team that should win and an owner who will spend. The basic ingredients for survival are here, and now it’s all about whether Brooklyn will support its own. Maybe it will. The initial reaction is gushy. Now colored in black and white, a gritty combination that sells shirts and jerseys, the Nets already rank among the best in moving merchandise. Half of all season tickets, which the Nets have sold 10,000, are $55 per game, at least this season.
“We have a responsibility to provide a team that they can be proud of and wear a logo that says Brooklyn and be proud,” said King.
Thousands of Knicks fans might disagree, but the Nets are on to something. A borough and a basketball team have regained an identity and given themselves every reason to think this will last. Like many who relocate here, the Nets have quickly learned Brooklyn ain’t so bad.
And the best part for a franchise that never really had a home? Maybe the feeling is mutual.