Brooklyn Nets, or Whatever
It’s July, which means we are in the midst of what is traditionally the slowest time of the year for sports. The NBA and Stanley Cup Finals are over, pro and college football are in between mini camps and training camps, and the Olympics are still six weeks away. Tiger Woods’ injury, which will keep him sidelined until 2009, has diminished our collective casual interest in golf. Tennis, lacking any engaging personalities or rivalries outside of Federer/Nadal & the Williams sisters, blips on the radar from time to time. Even in political competition, the presidential election is in the summer doldrums, as the nominees look to raise money and select running mates before the conventions in August. Baseball persists, its pace matching perfectly our own, as we take off early on Fridays, head to the movies to see Batman or Indiana Jones, drive to the beach, grill out, drink ice cold beers and watch or listen to the games that always seem to be on in the background. In other words, it’s a great, relaxing, lazy time of year. I don’t even really feel like typing, as the heat from my laptop is raising my body temperature and, probably, sterilizing me. But it’s a good time to talk about something that, at the risk of sounding like I have an “East Coast bias,” is pretty exciting: The return of major league sports to Brooklyn.
For the 2009-10 season the NBA’s New Jersey Nets will begin playing their home games in downtown Brooklyn. For those of you unfamiliar with documentaries awash in sepia-toned photographs, George Will interviews, and ragtime soundtracks, the Los Angeles Dodgers used to play in Brooklyn, until they unceremoniously pulled up the stakes and headed west in 1957. Since then, the idea of a major league team locating here, and belonging solely to the 2.5 million people in this borough of New York City, seemed like a quaint but outdated notion from a simpler time in pro sports. With all of the Houstons and Charlottes and Jacksonvilles booming across the sun belt, what argument could this dense city-within-a-city make to convince a team to move here?
But economic booms can happen anywhere, and the explosion of commercial development that began in Manhattan in the mid-90s has refused to relent, spilling over the river to Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. Not a week goes by without a new neighborhood touted as “up and coming,” followed by complaints that the same neighborhood has been “gentrified.” Starbucks, Jamba Juice, and wine-and-cheese bars follow. Some longtime residents disparage these young, urban settlers invading their territories, but this is nothing new—surely the Lenape Indians who once walked this ground had an equivalent term for “yuppie douchebag.” And now the NBA is coming, and along with it a multi-tiered commercial and residential complex that will forever change Brooklyn’s landscape. This makes perfect sense: The NBA has been mining new markets in Europe, Asia, and Latin America since at least 1992. Why not in its own backyard, which so many Europeans, Asians, and Latin Americans call home?
First, let me just say that I’ve made Brooklyn my adopted home since 2003, and I tend to go a little overboard when I talk about the place to people who might not give a rat’s ass about it. Asking Adam Underhill about Brooklyn is like asking a baby boomer what 1967 was like—neither one of us will shut up about it, and you’ll nod politely and smile until you finally look at your watch and pretend to have somewhere else to be. But I can’t help it. I find Brooklyn fascinating. Were it not a borough of New York City, it would still stand today as America’s fourth largest city by population. It’s a place as subdivided as any metropolis, by neighborhood and ethnicity. Hasidic Jews in Williamsburg and the Lebanese in Bay Ridge probably know or care very little about each other’s neighborhoods or cultures. Yet the borough as a whole is unified by the idea that, despite its assimilation into New York City way back in 1898, it stands alone among the five boroughs as a fiercely independent city unto itself (although, let’s face it, without colossal Manhattan across the river, Brooklyn as we know it would not exist).
The city’s contribution to sports is remarkable. In basketball, it gave us Michael Jordan, Red Auerbach, and Larry Brown. In football, it produced Vince Lombardi and Joe Paterno. On the baseball diamond, Brooklyn turned out Joe Torre and Joe Pepitone. Two competitors rarely mentioned in the same breath, heavyweight champion Mike Tyson and World Chess Champion Bobby Fischer, hail from Brooklyn. Most famously and importantly, it was here that in 1947 Jackie Robinson made history as the first black player in Major League Baseball.
The notion of living here when the Nets open Brooklyn’s latest chapter in sports history is exciting not only from a basketball fan’s perspective, but from a historical and sociological perspective. I’m not going to kid myself into thinking that it’s going to be sepia-toned 1955 all over again. Any resident old enough to remember having seen a Dodger game at Ebbets Field is probably 60 or older at this point, might not still live here, or is so jaded by having lost his team to LA that he is not particularly interested in the team that’s moving here, OR simply doesn’t care about professional basketball. (Or, he was uprooted from his home by eminent domain so that the arena and complex could be built, and has a voodoo stickpin doll of real estate developer Bruce Ratner in a shoebox under his bed.) Nevertheless, I think that it’s going to bring exciting change to a place that’s already changed drastically since the Giuliani years. Sports teams don’t solve society’s ills, but they are certainly not the cause of them. They do instill a sense of shared civic pride and identity that is at least on par with museums, symphony orchestras, public parks, and institutions of higher learning. (To say nothing of the additional potential of a 20,000-seat arena: concerts, political conventions, circuses, Ice Capades, graduation ceremonies, etc.)
The Nets must keep ticket prices affordable. Question: Which professional basketball team has the 2nd-highest average ticket price ($70.51) in the NBA? Answer: Why, it’s none other than the Big Apple’s vanguard of amateur athletics, the New York Knicks! According to TeamMarketing.com, the Nets’ average ticket price (not including luxury suites) ranks 7th in the league for this past season, at $60.98. Bruce Ratner and minority owner Jay-Z are no doubt salivating at the potential revenue from a new arena with dozens of new luxury suites, and that’s fine by me. Luxury suites are supposed to a luxury, for those who can afford them. But please, please understand that you will immediately alienate your fan base if you get greedy and jack up your regular ticket prices before a basket has been scored. Prices are expected to stay level, but we’ve seen before what one sellout season or playoff run can do to an owner. Brooklyn is not Manhattan, and although Spike Lee might defect, the Nets will still be catering to a more blue-collar fan base that will have to be convinced what you’re selling is worth its entertainment dollar. Showing that you give a damn about the average fan will endear you to them, and help foment a great rivalry with the Knicks, who charge a king’s ransom so that apathetic fans can rattle their jewelry throughout 25-win seasons. (OK, that was piling on. Believe me, I want to see the Knicks improve. I just hope they remain as entertaining as they’ve been while they’ve sucked.)
The Nets must sign LeBron James in 2010. OK, I know this is easier said than done. But in the NBA, these things first are talked about, ad nauseum, until they become self-fulfilling prophecies. LeBron James WILL be playing in Brooklyn after he becomes a free agent in 2010. The Nets traded Jason Kidd last winter and Richard Jefferson on draft day, two of their highest-paid players, so they could clear salary space for a marquee player in the future. (There can be no doubt that the overpaid and underperforming Vince Carter is on the chopping block as well.)
Of course, there will be competition for James, and some of that competition is expected to come from the Knicks. Nevertheless, expect Brooklyn to be the frontrunner in the race for LeBron, especially in light of this quote from James, made during a media blitz for USA Basketball—James had just told reporters that his favorite city was New York, then answered a follow-up question (as reported recently by Chris Sheridan of ESPN.com):
“My favorite borough? Brooklyn. Brooklyn is definitely a great place here in New York City, and some of my best friends are from Brooklyn, so I stick up for them.”
One of those friends happens to be Jay-Z himself. So you can already see the groundwork being laid for the Nets to throw everything but the kitchen sink at James. They’ll need plenty of money, because James will know that the Nets will need a big name to sell tickets, especially after the initial fan curiosity wears off. And for those of you who think James will remain loyal to his fellow Ohioans and stay in Cleveland, unfortunately, that’s just not how things work in the NBA. Marquee players go to New York, Boston, LA, or Miami, if they can. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar got sick of Milwaukee and was traded to LA. Shaquille O’Neal got sick of Orlando, and where did he go? LA. When he got sick of that, he went to Miami. Kevin Garnett left Minneapolis for Boston. All of those players went on to win titles after those relocations, but only one of them (Abdul-Jabbar) won a title with the team that drafted him. It’s just the nature of the NBA, and I don’t necessarily think it’s healthy, but that’s the way it is. LeBron James is moving, probably to New York.
(Get ready for some serious PR damage control in the coming days, if it hasn’t happened by the time this column runs. James went on to list Washington, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Akron to round out his top five. Akron, south of Cleveland, is James’ hometown; the other three have NBA franchises. I can’t wait to see how James gets out of this one. It’s already shaping up to be the biggest F-you to Cleveland since the Browns left, and James still has at least two seasons to play for the Cavaliers!)
The Nets must change their name. I understand that the Nets have a long history with that name, both in New York and New Jersey, but it is just that, history. This is a new era. Plus, “Brooklyn Nets” is not phonetically palatable. The two N’s run together, so that it sounds like one is saying “Brooklynettes,” which might be a good name for the cheerleading squad, but not pro hoops squad. (Whether the team will incorporate “New York” or “Brooklyn” in its name remains to be seen, but I think everyone knows it will be much cooler if they choose the latter.) “Why not ‘Dodgers?’” was my initial thought, but that might be a little too desperate. Why name your team after traitors? That’s like naming your daughter after an ex-wife who ran off with another man. As of now, I don’t know what the team name should be, but it should be reflective of Brooklyn, and not something pointlessly lame, and so obviously market-researched to death so as not to offend a single living soul, like “Wizards” or “Thrashers.” I’m sure Jay-Z can come up with something interesting.
There you have it. The perfect recipe for the perfect basketball storm that’s coming this way in 2009. Set your digital cameras to “sepia.”