The most high profile rebranding of a US sports team of the past decade needs all the help it can get and the Brooklyn Nets ticked two important boxes this week: they beat the New York Knicks on Monday night and got into a fight in Boston on Wednesday.
New York, no matter what the borough, thrives off wins. But it also cherishes its intense rivalry with Beantown and if their millionaire players want to get down and dirty once in a while, it’s all the sweeter no matter if it happens in Fenway or Foxboro or the other Garden. The relatively harmless scuffle — handbags really — was the highlight of the first half of what would end up being their second win over the Celtics in November. More importantly, it was exactly what the hype machine needed to push this project onto the next level.
The Knicks game, meanwhile, was played with an energy never normally seen prior to Christmas when the long season has yet to really get going.
There were a few reasons. The Nets need their neighbours across the Brooklyn Bridge to become a genuine enemy and a shot across the bows was essential in the first meeting.
What drove the atmosphere even more was the fact this game was initially scheduled to be the season opener until Superstorm Sandy had her way with the transport system.
It would have been a full house then but now it was an angry full house, hurt by the effects of the storm and needing the sort of claustrophobic atmosphere so synonymous with great basketball arenas in order to blow off some steam.
Adding to the drama was the need for overtime which the Nets cruised through to win by seven, their ninth victory of the season while the subsequent success up in Boston left them at a more than respectable 10-4 for the season.
There was never a guarantee that the incredible marketing surrounding Brooklyn’s return to top ranking professional sport for the first time in 55 years would naturally lead to consistent full houses straight away but the encouraging start has ensured a real belief that something long term is possible.
From the rapper part-owner (a tiny part) who was born a few miles away to the state-of-the-art arena designed to rust naturally and mimic the iconic brownstone buildings which line the beautiful old streets of the borough through to the simple yet distinctive logo and the impossibly trendy black-and-white colours, the stench of cool is everywhere and everyone wants a piece.
When the New York Daily News won Thursday’s battle of the tabloids with their two-word post-Celtics game headline, “Brooklyn Deckers”, the real Brooklyn Decker tweeted her elated reaction: “The fact that my name is associated with an nba brawl [in any sort of capacity] makes me happier than you can imagine.”
Jay-Z officially opened the Barclays Center in September but it has already started to go by its street name, The Black House. Born Shawn Carter in the bleak Marcy Projects in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Jay-Z sold drugs until his rapping abilities pulled him out of poverty.
While the majority owner, Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, watches from the comfort of the suites, Jay-Z sits courtside next to his wife Beyonce and not far from Nets coach Avery Johnson, retained from the uninspiring New Jersey era.
Those eight concerts which launched the venue were a nightly tribute to Brooklyn, its music and its history. Each set opened with the Roy Ayers track We Live In Brooklyn, Baby over a huge projection of the borough’s milestones: the construction of the Brooklyn Bridge in 1870; the birth of Al Capone in 1899; baseball’s first black player for decades, Jackie Robinson, in his first game for the Dodgers in 1947; the release of Jay-Z’s good friend Biggie Small’s classic hip-hop album Ready to Die in 1994; and of course, ultimately tying itself into that legacy, the Brooklyn Nets in 2012.
The gauntlet being laid down by Brooklyn to Manhattan is bold and necessary. The challenge is huge.
At the height of winter if the Knicks are doing well, there aren’t many more fashionable tickets anywhere in town.
Spotting the celebrity is part of the experience but Spike Lee is hard to miss. Whereas another Brooklyn director Woody Allen stays low key under a hat at Madison Square Garden, focused on the game in front of him, the altogether more flamboyant Lee has been the team’s unofficial mascot for years.
Usually dressed brightly and gesticulating wildly at opposition players, it’s always a jarring experience to watch those players send trash talk back at the diminutive Fort Greene native.
No one in cinema has advocated for Brooklyn quite like Spike Lee. It was inevitable then that he would have quite a bit to say about this new team arriving in his borough, almost 50 years too late for him. Out of this pain arrived a clever TV promo, a mini short film in the unique style of his greatest work: melodramatic magic realism.
Walking down a corridor wearing an orange fedora with a royal blue band to match his blue suit and blue dicky bow, Lee wears a crucifix dangling over his orange sweater while his large distinctive glasses reinforce that infamously grim-faced expression. He approaches a mirror and is greeted with his own black and white reflection, Knicks v Nets, split personality.
“Well here it is,” the Brooklyn half says.
“It’s been a long time,” replies the Knicks Spike.
“September 24, 1957, Ebbets Field, the last professional game of Brooklyn, by Brooklyn, for Brooklyn,” he spits, making a not so subtle reference to the African American clothing label formally known as For Us, By Us.
“55 years! No gloves, no bats, no pads, no cleats, no rims, no balls, nada. We’re no longer the borough with the hole in its soul.”
Brooklyn Spike and New York Spike proceed to play off love against loyalty.
“Loyalty: the thing that binds us,” says New York.
“When you chose something important or when that something chooses you. Your career, your passions, your partner, your team.”
“You only get one first,” pines Brooklyn. “One first love, one first season, you only get one chance to truly be down from day one.”
New York says: “I’m orange and blue, through and through.”
“We’re black and white, no shades of grey,” answers Brooklyn.
“Let’s not tear this city apart.”
Before the start of the season, Sports Illustrated asked Rick Telander to return to Brooklyn almost 40 years after he first went there to chronicle the incredibly vibrant street basketball scene. The resulting article is as comprehensive a study of gentrification as you can imagine.
That Brooklyn was “crowded, dense, terrifying, invigorating, bustling furiously to an asphalt thrum with sparkles and sparks seeming to fly off its sidewalks”.
This Brooklyn is trendy and artsy and expensive. The very team which defines itself by its hip-hop roots is part of a greater plan to revitalise and commercialise a conveniently located expanse of real estate. It’s as soulless around there as you’d expect.
“Brooklyn had always been,” continued Telander in his piece, “despite all its complexity and populace [2.5 million residents, virtually every country in the world represented], a loser. This was the thought when Brooklyn was compared to the skyscraper brilliance of the borough of Manhattan, just across the East River. Manhattan had ad agencies, TV headquarters, publishing houses, art galleries, fine restaurants, financial empires, buildings that touched the clouds. Brooklyn had brownstones, factories, shipyards, junkyards and diners. Brooklyn did have a major league baseball team: the Dodgers, better known as da Bums.
“And then one terrible day, even the Bums were gone.”
That was the beginning of the end for the old Brooklyn and revitalisation, for better and worse, was a long way off.
As a resident of Brooklyn, I sometimes feel the pang of guilt when I see how far poorer Brooklynites have been pushed out of their own neighbourhoods by rising rent.
But not all gentrification is a bad thing, insisted Brooklyn-born journalist and novelist Pete Hamill on a local radio show earlier this week. The heroin is gone and the crack almost gone with it.
The Brooklyn Nets are far from the final piece of a complicated jigsaw but they’re a vital one. If Brooklyn stood alone as it did before New York swallowed it up in the 19th century, it would be one of the top ten cities in the US.
A big time sports team was long overdue and this one will do just fine.
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