On a crisp Friday night in October, the Brooklyn Nets were getting set to play their third preseason game at their new home, the beautiful and spacious Barclays Center. Chants of "Let's go Nets" could be heard as hopeful youth walked around in black-and-white Joe Johnson or Deron Williams jerseys. Mike Hamilton, a Bushwick resident, was among them. "We've never had our own team here," he said. "Now, we finally do."
When they were the New Jersey Nets in the early '90s, they enjoyed some level of excitement with Croatian star Drazen Petrovic before he died in a car accident. And then again when Jason Kidd led them to consecutive NBA Finals appearances in 2002 and 2003. Since then the organization has been fighting to be relevant.
In the hierarchy of New York City sports franchises, the Nets have always occupied a very special (if unenviable) place. While the Yankees and Giants have long represented class, excellence and supremacy, the Nets have long represented losing, bad arenas and bitter fans.
Originally called the New York Americans, the Nets were supposed to play their 1966 home games in the Kips Bay neighborhood. The Knicks, then a member of the NBA (which merged with the ABA 10 years later), called the Armory home, before Madison Square Garden was built. In a series of swift negotiations, the Knicks prevented the Nets from playing there that season.
Between 1967 and 2000, through several relocations and flirtations with the Finals, the Nets struggled with mediocrity. Over the last decade or so, the Nets got bad, then really bad, and then utterly terrible, winning just 25 percent of their games over the last three years while having failed to make the postseason since 2007. Attendance plummeted to lowest in the NBA.
2012, though, means change -- a new era with new uniforms, a giant Russian man with more money than Croesus who desperately wants to win, the backing of the world’s most popular rapper, and a brand-new, state-of-the-art arena in Brooklyn.
Despite a wildly passionate fan base, the city of Brooklyn has not had its own pro team since Jackie Robinson and the Dodgers, who left for LA after the 1957 season. And Brooklyn is excited: Last season, playing in New Jersey, the team averaged a meager 0.38 Nielsen rating per game, good enough for worst in the league. Against Washington in the first preseason game, though, the Nets drew a respectable 1.02.
Legendary broadcaster Marv Albert may have summed it up best when he wrote that "around the city, people keep asking me about the Nets -- at a rate that I never thought possible ... The Nets are finally being embraced, perhaps for the first time since Julius Erving's heyday."
Then there is Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, who said: "For nearly 40 years the Manhattan Knicks have shown they can’t bring the championship home to New York, so it's going to take the Brooklyn Nets to get the job done," Markowitz said. "Move over Manhattan -- enough airballs. You had your chance."
The season opener against their crosstown rivals was postponed due to Hurricane Sandy.
The new-look Nets of 2012 feature a powerful starting lineup (at least in terms of their salaries) that includes All-Stars Deron Williams (five years, $98.7 million) and Joe Johnson (four years, nearly $90 million remaining on his contract), alongside Gerald Wallace, whom the team re-signed. There is also second-year swingman MarShon Brooks, a superb scorer, along with re-signed forward and former Mr. Kim K, Kris Humphries, and re-signed center Brook Lopez, one of the better young big men around (albeit one of the worst rebounders). All in all, the team will have the second-highest payroll in the league this season, behind only the Los Angeles Lakers, who splurged on Dwight Howard and Steve Nash.
Under commissioner David Stern's reign, only eight franchises have won NBA titles since 1984. Unlike the NFL, parity has never been one of the league's strongest points. For the Nets to become legitimate contenders, they would have to go through Miami, and that’s not going to happen, at least not yet. Of course, it's far too early to forecast if and when the fan base will decide to jump ship. Winning, as team owner Mikhail Prokhorov probably knows, is the bottom line for anyone.
But for the first time in a staggering 55 years, Brooklyn has someone to root for. Don't forget that in 2010 Prokhorov said the Nets would win a title in five seasons. New York is the epitome of a 'what have you done for me lately' sports town -- and the Nets are finally doing something.