I must confess, it’s very tempting to begin this article throwing lofty praises at the Nets. Such exaltation would greatly enhance the scope of this article, and might even have the desired effect of making it interesting enough to read. But it would be a disservice to you or to anyone else to not be truthful in any topic involving the Nets, because in all actuality, the Nets suck, really bad. Aside from a few good years, they have sucked as long as I can remember, and if I was stranded on a deserted Island with nothing but a magic projector continuously playing Glee episodes as my lone source of entertainment, and my only chance at salvation (or at least changing the program to Breaking Bad) was to say something admirable about the franchise, I’d be doomed. So the question that looms is why is everyone making such a big damn deal about the Nets all of a sudden? Hearing about the Nets so much in the media is jarring to say the least. The only equivalent I can think of is while sweating at the gym, struggling mightily to get the last rep up on the bench press, you suddenly hear…
But here’s my number!
So call me maybe!
…blaring from the speakers. Jarring indeed. But now, the Nets are in Brooklyn. And they have new uniforms. And they have a cool new logo. And Jay-Z is their owner (actually, Jay-Z owns only one-fifteenth of a percent of the franchise. To say Jay-Z owns the Nets is like saying that your friend Ronnie owns your life now because he let you have a piece of his Nutrigrain bar one time. The real owner is a gazillionaire Russian dude who likes to pick fights with Vladmir Putin, but more about him later). Nevertheless, Jay-Z is undoubtedly the primary face of the redesigned Nets, and has been the most instrumental in terms of brilliant marketing for a team that is extremely hard to care about in the first place. But any NBA fan somewhat familiar with sports history know that aside from a few shining moments, the franchise has been synonymous with the phrase “epic fail,” despite those cool new jerseys and Jay-Z and all that shit. (They even have a new mascot named The Brooklyn Knight, designed by Marvel Comics. At the time of publication, long-time Nets’ Sly The Silver Fox was unavailable for comment about his replacing). So when I first began research for this article, most of the time was spent wrapping my head around the idea that the Nets were suddenly a team that people cared about, and even more puzzling, that I was going to dedicate an entire investigation into this.
The Nets’ history with New York is a largely bitter one. Like the New York Yankees were for the late Brooklyn Dodgers, the New York Knicks were largely responsible for many of the Nets’ roadblocks along the way. This fuckery dates all the way back to the commencement of the franchise in 1966, when owner Arthur J. Brown established the New York Americans as one of the first teams in the ABA (a short-lived rival league of the NBA). However, the New York Knicks vetoed the move, causing Brown to relocate his team to New Jersey. Eventually the Americans became the Nets (a name that rhymed with two prominent New York-based teams, the Mets and the Jets), but the Knicks had only begun the fuckery process. In the 70’s, a man with a lot of funk, class, but most importantly, insane basketball abilities arrived on the b-ball scene. His name was Julius Erving, also known as Dr. J, and in 1974, he helped bring the first and only championship to the Nets organization.
When fans started tuning in to more ABA games than NBA games, NBA executives laid out a merger for the two leagues. One of the four teams to enter to the NBA was the Nets. Proposing some bullshit argument that the Nets were unfairly invading New York territory, the NBA forced the Nets to rake over $4.8 million to the Knickerbocker franchise. Prior to the upcoming season, Erving was promised a pay raise, which could not be completed due to the bullshit stipulation. Consequentially, the best player in Nets history parted ways with the team, packing all the Nets’ championship aspirations in his huge afro.
Even when the Nets later recovered from Dr. J’s absence in the 1982-83 season, New York halted their championship aspirations once again. During the season, the Nets were poised to take the Eastern Conference title, and strong contenders for the championship. However, long-revered head-coach Larry Brown was suspended during the last month of the season when he announced that he would be taking a head coaching position at the University of Kansas. And then what happened? The Nets were defeated in the playoffs by none other than the Knicks.
In light of such disaster, it’s not difficult to see why Brooklyn has a sour taste in its mouth. In his 2009 song “Hello Brooklyn,” Jay-Z writes a love letter to the borough personified, and concludes with the line: “My fine hoe, we got some victims to catch/So in a couple years baby, I’m gonna’ bring you some nets.”
Jay-Z probably has many different reasons for why he fondly refers to his birthplace as a “fine hoe,” but for others, Brooklyn is arguably the true birthplace of American professional sports. In 1857, long before the MLB and Derek Jeter, American baseball was relegated to a sixteen-team league that was centered in New York. Eight of those sixteen teams resided in Brooklyn. The league expanded exponentially in proceeding years, eventually claiming baseball clubs across the nation. In the 1860s, while Civil War threatened to shatter the nation, and Abraham Lincoln was busy magnifying his achievements so that his biopic could win an Oscar in 2012, baseball club owners were barred from providing compensation for their players. It wasn’t until 1868 that legislation allowing owners to compensate their players was established, laying the groundwork for the mega-million dollar world of modern professional sports.
The Brooklyn Dodgers were named due to the colloquial term used to describe how people dodged street alley cars in the city. Early sports writers frequently described the team as “bums,” a witty allusion to the Artful Dodger in Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist. But unlike Dickens’ great novel, the two sports foes would never become friends. Jackie Robinson is probably the name most closely identified with the late Brooklyn Dodgers. In 1947, a poor kid born into a family of farmers became the first African-American to play in the major leagues. Robinson helped pave the way for the current integrated landscape of baseball, but sadly, his efforts were never enough to defeat the New York Yankees. Robinson, along with a host of other future hall-of-famers took the Dodgers to extraordinary heights. However, the Dodgers ceiling was relegated by the New York Yankees, who defeated them in the World Series five times.
In 1955, Elvis made his first television appearance, the Warsaw pact was signed, and The Brooklyn Dodgers finally won the world series. But the glory did not persist. In most circles, then-Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley is remembered as a true pioneer of the game, but to Brooklynites, he is worth less than nothing. By the 50s, the historic Ebbets field was no longer sufficient to host games. Using this as a pretext to benefit from lucrative opportunities out west, Malley relocated the team to sunny Los Angeles in 1957, where they remain to this day. In the HBO documentary, Brooklyn Dodgers: The Ghosts of Flatbush, one panelist summed up the views of Brooklyn Dodgers fans perfectly when he said : ”If you asked a Brooklyn Dodger fan, if you had a gun with only two bullets in it and were in a room with Hitler, Stalin and O’Malley, who would you shoot? The answer: O’Malley, twice!”
Fifty-five years have elapsed since Brooklyn has had a professional sports team, leaving the borough’s inhabitants more than a little salty (like McDonald’s French Fries x 10). Although Brooklyn is geographically apart of New York, many residents feel that their borough is an entirely separate world from their Sex in the City, Gordon Gekko Wall-street Manhattan neighbors. The “bum” motif that originated in the early 20th century quickly evolved from a derisive term to an endearing and lasting one, with even current Brooklynites proudly adopting the title as a badge of honor (there is even a popular apparel line named Brooklyn Bums). The collective Brooklyn identity is rooted in the belief that their blue-collar natured borough has more metaphoric heart than their uppity neighbors across the Hudson River. The term “bum” is eerily fitting even in present times, because the Nets crew that will now be representing the city is a collective group of bums themselves. Not only is the franchise carrying to Brooklyn its own stigma of disappointment, but the individual members of the current Nets organization have been greatly disappointing in their respective careers.
Just to name a few, let’s begin with head coach Avery Johnson, who, in his playing days, probably suited up for every single team in the NBA. Although Johnson was always a fierce competitor, he never really found a home until the San Antonio Spurs invited him to join their squad in the mid-90s. Johnson would be a key factor to the team’s championship victory in the 1999 finals. But Johnson’s head-coaching stint has been equally frustrating. In 2006, as head coach of the Dallas Mavericks, Johnson got his team into the finals, only for them to be bested by Dwayne Wade and the Miami Heat. Because professional sports is rarely a forgiving business, Johnson’s failures to propel his team to the next level in subsequent years led to his dismissal (firing) in 2008. Now reinstated as the Brooklyn Nets coach, Johnson has a lot to prove.
And then there’s the other Johnson. A University of Arkansas alum, Joe Johnson is probably the most disappointing of the entire lot. In the last three years, Johnson has descended from the coveted “underrated” title to the overrated. Although Johnson dominates regular season play, and is typically among the top scorers in the league, he always seems to disappear around the postseason. Unlike his peers across the league (Kobe, Rondo, Wade), Johnson has never been able to lead his Hawks to a finals appearance, much less a championship. But with a new team comes a new opportunity, and many NBA fans are anxious to see whether Johnson can finally get his act together.
Let me preface this by saying that talking about Jerry Stackhouse in 2012 is coming to grips with the fact that I am no longer a child. Sorry, just had a moment. Reserve guard Jerry Stackhouse first entered the league in 1995, fans had great expectations. Stackhouse was largely touted as the successor to Michael Jordan, both University of North Carolina shooting guards. However, he never achieved the same level of greatness as His Airness. Often times Stackhouse is a force to be reckoned with, and on his best nights, he is capable of almost inhuman achievements. However, his inconsistent play and conflicts with coaches earned him a negative reputation, and a career as an NBA journeyman (a term often used to describe players who are traded many times). At age 37, the time is running out for Stackhouse. In the upcoming season, Stackhouse will wear the number 42, the only professional athlete since Jackie Robinson to don the number in Brooklyn. Talk about big shoes to fill.
But when the smoke clears, the outcome of the Nets season will largely fall on one person’s shoulders: Deron Williams. A 3x NBA all-star, many consider Williams to be the best point guard in the NBA, period. Beginning his career with the Utah Jazz, Williams brought the team to respectability once again after the two franchises biggest stars John Stockton and Karl Malone hung up their jerseys. In 2007, the Jazz shocked many when they made it to the finals, only to be bested by the San Antonio Spurs. And therein lies his sticking point: despite his successes, Williams has never been able to lead his team to the finals. Many in the NBA community feel that it is now or never for the 28 year old Olympic champion.
And last but not least (well, sort of), Kris Humphries. The world has come to grips with the fact that Kris Humphries will never be of superstar caliber, and we all expected his marriage with Kim Kardashian to fizzle after a short duration, possibly a little over a year. But 72 days? Pathetic.
But of course, the failures of the Nets make their upcoming 2012-13 season all the more compelling, and the ultimate reason the team has become a media fixation in the last few months. Although sports’ games are entertaining to watch, it is most often times the narrative that provides significance. Week after week, major networks televise the games that come equipped with some sort of engaging story line. For instance, Jeremy Lin, an Asian shooting guard with an Ivy League degree, quickly attracted the attention of the world when he defied the odds to become one of the premiere players in the NBA last season (if you don’t count the times scorched by Deron Williams and Dwayne Wade, or when he opted out of the playoffs because he had a tummy ache or some shit). The underdog is often times the most effective thematic undercurrent that provides meaning for a profession in which men fresh out of college are awarded ludicrous amounts of money to play a game for a living. Aside from film, rarely is the underdog victorious in life. However, the idea of a proverbial David defeating Goliath is the reason most people root for players in the first place. The underdog is the reason why we watch games. It is the reason why we cheer during those games. It is the reason that the film Rudy is televised approximately three billion times per day.
Given the history of the borough, the players, and the individuals directly associated with the Nets, the whole relocation makes a lot of sense. Traditionally, not much attention is paid to team history or relevance when a team relocates. This is why the New Orleans Jazz can somehow become the Utah Jazz, and the Minneapolis Lakers can become the Los Angeles Lakers and no one bats an eye. The end game is usually money, and well, I guess money plays a bit of a factor in the Nets’ relocation as well. Mikhail Prokhorov, the actual Nets owner (sorry Jay), is a celebrity in his own right. Currently the second richest man in Russia, Prokhorov has made bold claims about not only his intended direction for the team but also their future success. In an interview with Darren Rovell of CNBC Sports, Prokhorov said that the Nets would taste championship gold by 2015. Prokhorov is under the impression that the transition to Brooklyn will improve the team’s odds: “I am sure we will be more competitive in Brooklyn because when we move to Brooklyn, we have 2.5 million people, it would be the fourth largest city in the US. It’s really the first professional team there in 50 years. I am sure there will be great excitement there. I hope our current fans will stick with us as we move to Brooklyn and also we have new fans in Brooklyn that will be really fascinated. It’s also really good for the business franchise also.”
Clearly the individuals currently involved with the Nets organization, not to mention the relocation itself, is rife for an engaging story. This is most likely the reason why the NBATV network will be featuring the Nets on their The Association program, a documentary style show which covers teams during the season. Many pressing questions still loom: Will Avery Johnson finally gain respect as a coach? Will Joe Johnson and Deron Williams effectively gel? Will Jerry Stackhouse attempt to strangle anyone this season? Will Kris Humphries abandon basketball for his own reality show Life After Keeping Up With The Kardashians? Only time will tell.
In a press conference before the season, coach Johnson stated: “We want to be a team this year that puts on its hard hat. Even though we look good on paper, we want to be a team that takes on the personality of Brooklyn, which is a hard-working community. I’ve always believed in teams that had that type of personality, that don’t complain or make excuses, but just play hard on both sides of the floor. I’ve got some veteran guys on the roster that we think are going to help reinforce that message.”
Will Leitch, writing for NYTimes Magazine, is under the impression that the Nets’ media fascination will soon evaporate once reality starts to set in. In his article “So, How Much Coverage Did The Nets Get Yesterday,” he argues that the Brooklyn Nets will never eclipse the Knicks in a battle for media supremacy: “The idea that the Nets could approach that, just because they have a shiny new building and a cool logo and Jay-Z, is fallacy. They have a long, long way to go”
Still with The Nets on the verge on their first regular season outing as The Brooklyn Nets, many are skeptical of Leitch’s view. I mean, really, how hard would be it be to take focus off of the Knicks? Whereas The Yankee organization is willing to visit with esteemed mathematicians, develop new arithmetic principles and number systems, visit with Congress, while lobbying and filibustering during congressional hearings, finally establishing new forms of currency in order to acquire a trillion dollar roster all for the sake of winning (I don’t know if this has ever really happened, but maybe…), The Knicks are notorious for their terrible executive decisions. It is only fitting that a disastrous storm (Sandy) forced the Nets to postpone their original opener with the Knicks (Brooklyn fans probably largely under the belief the Knicks had something to do with it, somehow). However, this Friday marks the first time that the Nets will suit up when they play the Toronto Raptors. The Nets will be playing in the new Barclays Arena, and many wonder whether or not The Nets will bring as many shining moments to the arena as the late Brooklyn Dodgers brought to Ebbet’s Field. The road will be rocky, but like the true underdog himself, maybe the Nets will surprise many and inspire 100 films about them (see what I did there?).