The Nets have been a bad luck franchise from the moment they joined the NBA.
When Long Island’s American Basketball Association champion New York Nets joined the NBA as part of the ABA-NBA merger in 1976, they were forced to pay the New York Knicks $4.8 million for encroaching on their turf. A year later, they had to pay the Knicks another $4 million for the right to move to New Jersey.
The real cost? The millions they lost to the Knicks in ’76 meant the Nets could no longer afford their greatest player, Hall-of-Famer Julius “Dr. J” Erving.
It was just the beginning.
The basis of Knicks’ fans inevitable rejoinder every time the Nets have the slightest success: “The Nets don’t matter.”
“Cuz they’re the Nets.”
Oh sure, the Brooklyn Nets’ 2019 NBA Playoff battles might be respectable, even inspiring. They’ve certainly surpassed expectations by hanging with a top-heavily talented Philadelphia 76ers roster.
But does it matter? With the Knicks right across the river, (and still stinking up the joint, for that matter), does anyone care?
A tragic but forgettable History
The Nets lost many promising players. Short-sighted trades (Hall-of-Famer Bernard King), league bans (Michael Ray Richardson), untimely death (Drazen Petrovic) and injuries, injuries, injuries (too many to mention) periodically killed hope in swamps.
The New Jersey Nets were ever the middle child, caught between better, richer, more established and exciting franchises to the East and West (the Knicks and 76ers). Even when the Nets made the playoffs, the success was short-lived and nobody took much notice other than to remind them their achievements were meaningless.
The nearest metropolitan center to the New Jersey Nets’ arena was Newark, N.J., otherwise known as “Brick City.”
Not the best nickname for a basketball team, methinks.
Another change of scenery didn’t help. Their move to Brooklyn this decade was met with picket signs because the home arena was being built as part of a controversial development project that would destroy part of the community they were trying to join.
Plus, Knicks fans found the Brooklyn location much more convenient than New Jersey whenever they wanted to root for the Away team and jeer “This is Knicks City.”
The Nets’ new owner, Mikhail Prokhorov, tried to tempt New York basketball fans with bait they were too savvy to fall for: A couple of aging superstars (Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett). He mortgaged the team’s future and left it short on stars, cash, draft picks…and fans. It’s almost like the Nets never had a chance.
So why should things be any different now? What can the Brooklyn Nets do to make anyone care?
What does “relevant” mean?
Relevance means that when the Nets beat the pants off of another team, all the sports networks talk about the Nets’ great victory, not the other team’s sad defeat.
It means New York sports bars play their games on some TVs, even if the Knicks and Golden State Warriors are playing on another station. It means fans are wearing their players’ jerseys (and retired players’ jerseys) around town. It means they have season ticket holders.
Consider a few comparisons.
The L.A. Clippers will never outshine the L.A. Lakers. The New York Mets will never outclass the majestic New York Yankees. The New York Jets will never beat out the New York Giants. The Lakers, Yankees and Giants are too historic, woven into the fabric of their sports and their cities.
And yet, we the public are becoming more interested in the Clippers during the past decade or so in a way we weren’t ever interested in the Nets. We’re interested in the Mets here in New York (whether it be real or mockingly fun). We’re sometimes marginally interested in the Jets—and they maintain a fanbase of extremely devoted people with very low expectations.
Why is that? And can the Nets mimic it?
KICK ‘EM WHILE THEY’RE DOWN
— Spencer Dinwiddie (@SDinwiddie_25) January 26, 2019
When “Broadway Joe” Namath led the Jets to a Superbowl III win in 1969, the Giants were just looking for a winning season, which they hadn’t had since 1963.
When the Mets won the World Series in 1969, the Yankees had only one winning season during the past five.
When Chris Paul and Blake Griffin united on the Clippers to form “Lob City” with DeAndre Jordan, Phil Jackson had just left the Lakers, taking the franchise’s playoff hopes with him.
Right now, the Knicks are terrible. Really, really, really terrible. They have been terrible for a long time. While Knickerbockers devotees are not likely to convert, they may appreciate good basketball.
News outlets will be more willing to cover basketball that doesn’t objectively suck. And kids who want to see their team win might find it easier to love a team that not only wins, but keeps the players from one season to the next instead of overhauling the roster entirely.
The Nets beat the Sixers to a pulp in Game 1. (The Sixers returned the favor in Game 2 and gutted out Game 3.) If the can at least make the series exciting, push it to six, they might just snatch a few new genuine fans.
Again, diehard Knicks fans won’t convert (they never will), but casual fans may find something in Brooklyn to love.
KEEP D’ANGELO RUSSELL HEALTHY
It’s morbid. But I remember exactly where I was sitting in 10th grade French glass when my friend John told me Nets’ shooting guard Drazen Petrovic had been killed in a car accident at age 28 after his best season in the league.
I remember when Jayson Williams’ career ended after he broke his leg. Kenyon Martin, Alonzo Mourning, Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and many others suffered injuries that disrupted what might have been hopeful seasons for the Nets.
D’Angelo Russell is Brooklyn’s one-and-only star quality player today. They must treat every ankle sprain and sore thumb with kid gloves. And just pray fate doesn’t cast the Nets to the depths all over again.
EXCITING STARS & GREAT MARKETING FOR THEM
Lob City. Broadway Joe. The ’86 Mets’ (despicable off-field behavior that we found charming for some reason). Gritty.
The Nets have chic colors, but they need something to sell T-shirts and punch up headlines.
STAY CHEAP; DON’T MOVE
The cheap seats at Madison Square Garden to watch the worst team in the league on Fan Appreciation Night were roughly the same price as Round 1 Playoff tickets at Barclays Center against the Sixers.
For a team building a new fanbase, affordability could be just as important as success. Little kids might not know the difference between great basketball and disgusting basketball, but parents sure can feel the difference in ticket price. Over time, a family of four might make more memories at Barclays than at MSG.
The Nets’ current home is not perfect, however.
An avid community movement fought against the massive development project that included construction of Barclays Center. In the eyes of Brooklyn natives, the team may still carry the stain of long legal battles, controversial use of Eminent Domain and the destroyed neighborhoods in downtown Brooklyn.
What’s more, the population of the surrounding area is now largely transitory, and it might be difficult to capture the hearts of people who move in and out so quickly.
Nevertheless, the Nets must commit for the long haul. No NBA team has played in more arenas in as few years.
They need to stay someplace long enough to become a fixture. For a generation of adults to remember going to Barclays as a kid. For a position for a much-beloved Nets beat writer to be created, and for said writer to get a few gray hairs.
The first goal
The Nets don’t need to beat the Knicks in the popularity contest. They just need to achieve what the Mets have: a group of true fans and enough success to keep them interested.
Brooklyn’s best chance to capture the public’s attention is right now, before New York fans get frothy about draft picks and free agents again.
The word “relevant” isn’t, well, relevant. Whether the Nets “matter” doesn’t actually matter.
What the Brooklyn Nets need first is to be loved.
Sara Peters is a 17-year journalist who covers cybersecurity by day, basketball by night. She spent the past four seasons enduring a relentless barrage of losses as a featured New York Knicks columnist for Bleacher Report. She loves driving point guards, passing centers, scrambles for loose balls, buzzer-beating blocks, Allen Iverson, and tearful memories of Drazen Petrovic. Sara lives in Queens. Follow her on Twitter @3FromThe7.