BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- Everyone came to the Barclays Center on Monday night to cheer New York and also New York, and isn't that what a city does when it's in love with itself?
New York has always been a self-proclaimed greatest-this, greatest-that. Which is tough to argue against, because the place doesn't lend itself to exaggeration, given the richness of the history, the height of the buildings, the prices on the menu and the size of the subway rodents. There's certainly a lot to admire here, and yet with regards to basketball, if we can be brutally honest, New York has been more hype than hoop.
For more than a few decades, in fact, the storied city game had gone stale on all levels, but maybe that changes a bit now. Maybe the Knicks and Nets, who put on a show worthy of overtime in the historic, first-ever intra-city NBA game, will allow New Yorkers to sound believable the next time they claim the sport.
"This was fantastic," said Knicks coach Mike Woodson. "A great night for New York."
What we can take away from Monday night's game, and really the early stage of this season, is that New York is getting what it wanted: two respectable, winning teams and perhaps a healthy and heated rivalry. They left the building with identical 9-4 records and feeling good about where they're headed and what they managed to pull off at Barclays. The atmosphere inside the building was passionate on every basket because the fans cheered every basket. A borough born and raised on the Knicks has decided to splinter a bit, and so the unofficial fan breakdown was 60-40 in support of the Nets, give or take a percentage point or decibel level either way.
"I had to take my Knicks hat off for a second, and as a Brooklyn boy, I was proud," said Carmelo Anthony, who spent the first 11 years of his life just a few subway stops away. He then added: "There was nothing like it."
Well, that sounds like a stretch to anyone who ever attended a Yankees-Mets game, but the point Melo was making is how basketball in the City never felt this … rejuvenated. Yes, that's the word. New York has rediscovered the love of the game. Anthony has done his part since arriving in February of 2011 and shaking up the Knicks in a good way. He's a scorer who finally learned the joys of buying into defense and being a leader, and this didn't happen until he became a Knick and was reminded how this city just demands a little bit more.
He was overshadowed on Monday by Deron Williams, another superstar who defected last season and saved a New York franchise. While Anthony turned to vapor in the final moments of the fourth quarter and overtime, Williams rescued the Nets with sharp passes, help defense and a few baskets that gave the Nets a 96-89 win. Even more than having a pair of All-Stars and Olympians within the city limits, New York has a pair of Eastern Conference contenders who could go deep into the playoffs and seize the early summer buzz from baseball.
"This is what we've been dreaming about," said Nets coach Avery Johnson.
This is something New York needed, because the fall from basketball grace has been steep and hard, if not swift. When basketball gained popularity in the '50s, it was reflected mostly by New York, the birthplace of the asphalt courts and provider of talent to many college and NBA teams. Rucker Park in Harlem became iconic in this regard, and Brooklyn also had its share of flashy players with flashier nicknames. Lew Alcindor, Connie Hawkins and Billy Cunningham gave way to Chris Mullin, Pearl Washington and Kenny Smith as the City kept pumping out players and slapping itself on the back.
Soon, the City delivered respectable teams, too, with St. John's breathing life into the Big East and the Knicks winning two championships in the '70s. But somewhere in the early '90s, right around the time Patrick Ewing made championship promises he couldn't keep, New York lost its way and its claim to basketball supremacy. The City stopped sending quick and clever point guards to the pros, St. John's couldn't crack the NCAA tournament and the Knicks became easy material for Letterman. With the exception of Anthony, the last two Olympic teams didn't have any New York-born or raised players, and neither did the most recent All-Star Game. New York went from all-ball to airball, and it was both embarrassing and painful to watch.
So now there's been an abrupt change in direction. Anthony and Williams are pumping life and air into local hoops. So are the teams they represent. While their superstars arrived in similar ways, the Nets and Knicks took separate routes to reach this productive crossroad. A change in ownership and Bruce Ratner's bold idea of bringing the NBA to Brooklyn instantly made the Nets a viable team with a real-life fan base after years of invisibility in New Jersey. And this was never more evident than on Monday against the Knicks, when the building swayed from "Broook-lyn" chants.
"This atmosphere was 180 degrees from a year ago, when all the cheers were for them," Williams said.
The Knicks are finally making smart decisions after a lost decade, and once Amar'e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert heal from injuries, they could do something they haven't accomplished since 1973, the last time the City threw them a parade.
And so the Nets and Knicks have bigger plans than just playing a game in late November, exciting and historic as it was. Williams said, "We didn't win the championship of New York, we won a game against a division rival," which means the Nets will celebrate more if they get this same result in May.
Yes, if the Knicks and Nets meet with something actually on the line, and they're heading in that direction, then Monday was the beginning of a new game in town.
"Why not?" said Anthony. "They're across the bridge and we're in the same division and will see each other four times a year. We just had a great game, for the most part, that everyone seemed to enjoy.
"Why shouldn't this be the start of something?"