A serious rivalry between the Knicks and Nets never developed in all those years the mostly-irrelevant Nets played in New Jersey. Not even when Jason Kidd led the Nets to back-to-back NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003 did local passions stir.
For a Knicks fan, it was like “Isn’t that nice, the Nets are in the Finals. I hope they do well. Look, Richard Jefferson.”
Back then, the Knicks were terrible—they finished last (30-52) and next-to-last (37-45) in the Atlantic those years, respectively. The Nets were the only game in town, so there wasn’t much animosity between the two teams. They were not competing against each other for a playoff spot, and didn’t face each other in meaningful games, nevermind a postseason series.
Then in 2004 they did meet in Round 1, and the Nets swept the Knicks away, banishing them from the postseason for the next six years.
Even then, it remained pretty quiet on the rivalry front. These aren’t the Celtics and the Lakers.
It has always been no shame to root for both teams in this town, except for when they face off. We love our Knicks, but we also love underdogs, like the Nets. On the other side, it’s hard to find many a Knick-loathing Nets fan.
But what about today, now that the Nets are playing well and across town? And that the Knicks are playing their best basketball in about 20 years?
This is, in fact, the first time both teams have been this good at the same time. In 35 years, the Knicks and Nets have simultaneously played over .500 ball only five times.
With the Knicks and Nets now vying for the division title with the Boston Celtics and perhaps even the Philadelphia 76ers, are Knicks and Nets fans ready to take their basketball relationship to a more disagreeable level?
For now, it’s still OK to be a Nets fan and Knicks fan at the same time, a la similar local “rivalries,” like the Yankees-Mets and Giants-Jets. These fanbases are not really engaged in heated, historical dispute.
Sure, there is a segment of the nation that are generally “Yankee-haters,” but these teams don’t meet enough to affect each other’s destinies. If championships are what you care about, then expending energy on these pairs is a waste.
Furthermore, the concept of the local rivalry has changed drastically over the past few decades, and it has something to do with the mobility of the average American.
Throughout much of the 20th century, most people lived their whole lives in one place. Their birthplaces and places of death were usually within a few miles of each other, if that. Also, there were fewer teams from fewer cities in all the four major sports. As a result, rivalries in general, and local rivalries in particular, were much more intense.
How about the New York Yankees-New York Giants-Brooklyn Dodgers rivalry as the perfect example?
That concept, and world, is dead today. We’re a national, and global, citizenry connected to the world through the Internet. Many go off to college in different states and eventually others retire thousands of miles away. It’s easier today, and somewhat more acceptable, to root for all your original local teams in the face of this movement and national exposure.
Most serious rivalries today are across state borders, rather than within city walls.
That being said, there is one local rivalry around here that could wind up being the model for a contentious future between the Knicks and Nets: the NHL’s Rangers-Devils-Islanders. These fanbases really don’t like each other.
For one thing, like these three hockey teams, the Knicks and Nets play in the same division and are playing for the same playoff marbles.
Secondly, like hockey, and compared to baseball and football, basketball is more of a niche, grass-roots national sport that fires up cultish, dedicated fanbases as opposed to mass followings. This is something to be proud of, and it stokes the coals of die-hard rivalry passion.
These factors may one day lend themselves to a time when it may no longer be OK to be both a Nets and Knicks fan. But lastly, and most importantly, the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks need a longer and physical, postseason history for things to get truly nasty.
Look at how quickly the Knicks-Miami Heat rivalry developed. Not long after the Heat joined the league, these two teams fostered a hatred that still lasts today.
Like the Rangers-Devils-Islanders enmity, the Knicks-Heat hatred is based on one thing more than any other: not physical proximity, but close, physical playoff series.
Until that happens between the Knicks and Nets—several times—it’s easy to be fans of both teams.