BROOKLYN -- Climbing the steps of the Atlantic Avenue subway stop and coming upon the scene outside Barclays Center about an hour before the Brooklyn Nets' first-ever playoff game, I was treated to a scene of excitement, yes, but one with a bit of a manufactured feel.
A larger-than-usual crowd gathered on the beautiful brick plaza out in front of the main entrance. Cold Steel, the percussion band from North Carolina A&T, gamely tried to boost the energy. But the laidback vibe found at Brooklyn Nets games in this, the first season after the franchise moved from Newark and shed nearly all of its history, was palpable.
This shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone. The move to Brooklyn, years in the making, carried with it the promise of starting over. The New Jersey Nets finished near the bottom of the N.B.A. in both attendance and the standings for five years running. Prior to that, the Nets had some impressive seasons, but that never translated into a dedicated fan base to fill their arena. The Nets finished 23rd and 26th in the league in attendance in 2001-02 and 2002-03, despite reaching the N.B.A. Finals in both seasons.
So when Mikhail Prokhorov bought the team in 2009 and set about moving it to Brooklyn, what he was really doing was creating an expansion team by the same name. Goodbye, New Jersey, and with it the team's color scheme, hopefully the losing, and clearly its fan base -- Barclays Center has something like 800 parking spots, total, for its presumably car-owning old fans from the Garden State.
The successful summer the Nets had -- re-signing Deron Williams, adding Joe Johnson, keeping Brook Lopez and surrounding them with useful role players like Andray Blatche and C.J. Watson -- simply added to the sense that a nearly brand-new team would be playing in Brooklyn.
And yet to many observers, the fact that the Nets fans in Brooklyn somehow weren't as plentiful or passionate as the Knicks fans one borough over, and right away, was perplexing. Somehow these fans, who were being asked to root ardently for a brand new team, were supposed to manufacture the kind of passion that comes with, and only comes with, years of pain and suffering and ideally, the occasional transcendent success.
When I covered a Nets game in October, during the preseason, most fans weren't even in their seats. They were checking out the arena, seeing how they looked in their new black-and-white attire, taking in a new centerpiece for Brooklyn.
As fans became familiar with the phenomenon of having the Nets, the Nets themselves were figuring things out. Deron Williams struggled early; it took him until February, and a magical cortisone injection, to regain the athleticism he'd lacked since, really, before the 2011 trade from the Utah Jazz. He didn't dunk until March. His early form cost one coach, Avery Johnson, his job and made another coach, P.J. Carlesimo, only as secure as Williams' level of play, a barometer for the team as well.
By April, though, fans had made their way to their seats. The "Brooooooklyn, Broooooooklyn" chants, deployed early on with entirely too much regularity, were saved for significant moments in the ball game. When the Nets lost to the Bulls late in the regular season, the disappointment was palpable. The Nets drew just over 704,000 this season; last season it was 460,000. And that is astonishing when you consider how little overlap there was between the two groups.
Accordingly, I had a great deal of trouble even finding fans entering the arena wearing the blue and red that Chris Morris semi-proudly wore. Everyone was in black and white. Finally I spotted a couple, the man in a Brooklyn Nets hat but the woman wearing Yinka Dare blue and red. I asked how far they'd come, expecting to engage in a conversation about lost nights in Secaucus.
"East New York," the woman replied, as they continued into the arena.
The arena was distressingly empty as the Nets and Bulls came out for warmups, particularly in the lower bowl. There's something in the DNA at Madison Square Garden, or Chicago, or Boston, where fans know to be in their seats, ready to menace opponents when they take the floor for the first time, like a collective angry dog. You'll hear players talk about it. That wasn't the case at Barclays Saturday night. I began to worry that neither the Nets, who'd failed to match the intensity of the Bulls in that late-season loss, nor their fans, would be playoff-ready.
My fears were assuaged, ultimately, by Jerry Stackhouse. The 18-year NBA veteran went out and sang a soulful, impressive rendition of The Star Spangled Banner. The crowd responded eagerly, separately cheering every flourish Stackhouse added to the song like a series of no-look passes. By the time he finished, mobbed by several teammates, the crowd had transitioned from a casual mass of people to an event.
Prokhorov addressed the crowd next, assuring them that "This is just the beginning." And in a rare nod to team history, as he walked off the floor, he stopped and shook hands with Bruce Reznick, a longtime feature of the New Jersey years known as "Mr. Whammy". For those who haven't seen him, how to describe: he puts spells on opposing free throw shooters. He is quintessentially New Jersey Nets, but he made the move to Brooklyn.
To make sure the crowd continued at the same energy level, though, the Nets had to perform. So it helped that the team took the floor and utterly destroyed the Chicago Bulls from the very start.
Brook Lopez, who can be passive at times, was demanding the ball, and scoring regularly against a greatly depleted Chicago front line. The Bulls had absolutely no plan to stop Williams, who got to the basket with regularity. He didn't get his first assist until 4:36 to go in the second quarter, but not because he was forcing anything; why would he give up the ball when a layup was his for the asking?
By then, the Nets led 43-26. By halftime, it was 60-35. Everything went right on the court. Gerald Wallace, locked in a long shooting slump, made five of seven shots. These fans, who now knew Wallace's struggles, chanted his name. C.J. Watson spelled Williams and scored 14 points. Andray Blatche spelled Lopez and scored 12 points. Reggie Evans, defying the odds, made a free throw. More chanting.
"Exceptional," a gushing Carlesimo said of the crowd following the game. (It is rare for the intense Carlesimo to gush.) "It couldn't have been better. The atmosphere in the building was great before it started. I've also said a number of times, we need to give them things to cheer about. Before we did anything, they were great. But when the players gave them something to cheer about, they cheered, they made noise. It was fantastic."
If it wasn't quite Madison Square Garden, it was a strong effort for a fanbase's first playoff game. And even with Drazen Petrovic and Julius Erving's numbers hanging in the rafters, this is a new franchise. It is unfair to insist that the Nets start anew and then deny them, and their fans, room to grow.
The arena was pretty empty when the second half started. The game was out of hand, and the wait for Fatty Cue and other arena concessions was long. But on each possession, the sound in Barclays Center grew louder as fans returned. One final push at the end of the third, with Williams drawing a foul, hitting two free throws, nabbing a steal and, in a move unthinkable for anyone watching him early this season, punctuating the breakaway with a double-pump reverse slam dunk. The appreciation was MSG loud, Boston loud, Chicago loud.
The Deron Williams everyone expected was finally here. Brooklyn roared its approval. These Nets had been through plenty in just one season, but they'd showed up in full force for the playoffs. And just a season into what promises to be a long relationship, so had their fans.
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Howard Megdal is Writer-at-Large for Capital New York, covers the Mets and Knicks for The Journal News, and is the author of "The Baseball Talmud," "Taking the Field" and "Wilpon's Folly."