There's much more to an NBA rivalry than what happens on the court between the two teams involved. Bad blood among players and fans, one-upmanship shot from one camp to the other and the interplay of cultural and historical fabrics will inevitably factor into a conflict that extends beyond wins and losses.
And so it is that the New York Knicks and the Brooklyn Nets enter their inaugural meeting on Monday at the Barclays Center not only as foes from different boroughs, but also as rivals with top-of-the-league billing.
By no means is this meant to demean the significance of existing rivalries around the Association. The rivalry between the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics will likely always be the greatest in basketball history. But while the Lakers-Celtics still exists, it hardly does so with the same vigor that carried the league through its infancy in the 1950s up through its young adulthood in the 1980s and into the modern day with matchups in 2008 and 2010.
Both teams have long since cycled through a slew of stirring-but-brief rivalries. The Lakers had theirs with the Portland Trail Blazers and the Sacramento Kings at the dawn of the 21st century. However, the Blazers and the Kings fell off the map shortly thereafter, while the Lakers have retained their relevance.
The Purple and Gold were once mortal enemies with the Phoenix Suns, though they've since drawn two of the principals—Steve Nash and Mike D'Antoni—to their side. The Clippers, with whom the Lakers share the Staples Center, have the makings of blood rivals with plenty of star power and shots fired since the start of the 2011-12 season.
Except the record between the two sides head-to-head as well as in the grander scheme, remains a tad too lopsided, to say the least.
As for the Celtics, they will always have their regional foibles with the Knicks and the Philadelphia 76ers. The recent stoking of the coals with the Miami Heat has also been a sight to behold, particularly in the playoffs. But the former two haven't been relevant in some time, and the latter has more to do with the ongoing antagonism between Boston's new "Big Three" (Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo) and LeBron James (and now Ray Allen) than anything that can be traced back in the lineage of either organization.
Knicks-Nets, on the other hand, incorporates old and new, past and present (and future) unlike any other pairing in the NBA.
The Nets have yet to play the Knicks since their move to Brooklyn on account of the interference run by Superstorm Sandy. Still, the Nets are eminently familiar with their mortal Manhattan enemies.
The two franchises have met 167 times during the regular season—85 wins for the Knicks, 82 for the Nets. To be sure, the closeness of the overall record belies the streaky way in which each side has dominated for stretches (i.e. the Nets in the 2000s).
But the point remains that the tally between the two is close enough to be swung in any given season.
The postseason history between the neighbors isn't quite so extensive, though it's worth noting as they're an even 10-10 in the playoffs to this point. The Knicks came out ahead in a first-round series in 1983, 2-0, and again in 1994, 3-1. The Nets finally had their day when they swept the Knicks in 2004, 4-0.
The ties that bind these organizations go back beyond record, to the days when the NBA was adjusting to having two teams in New York. In 1973, the Knicks demanded that the then-New York Nets (of Long Island) fork over $4.8 million as a fee for infringing on their territory as part of the ABA-NBA merger. The added expense compelled Nets owner Roy Boe to go back on his word to one of his star players to raise said player's salary.
The player was so incensed by this that he held out of training camp that fall. The Nets subsequently offered his contract to the Knicks in exchange for dropping the $4.8 million toll altogether, but the Knicks refused.
That player—Julius Erving (or Doctor J)—went on to lead the Philadelphia 76ers to the 1983 NBA title amidst a Hall of Fame career. The Knicks, on the other hand, toiled in mediocrity until 1985 when they stumbled upon Patrick Ewing atop the NBA Draft.
In essence, the Knicks could've built themselves a budding dynasty in the 1970s but were so concerned with spiting the Nets that they sliced off their own proverbial nose.
Those names have long since vacated the league. What's left, though, is a rich subtext to a metropolitan animosity that needs none. In broader cultural strokes, Brooklyn has long been the scrappy underdog to the posh, winning-as-fact-of-life attitude of Manhattan, dating back to the days when the Brooklyn Dodgers battled the arch-rival New York Giants in the National League and the New York Yankees in the World Series.
Even that David vs. Goliath mentality stems from a deeper sense of pride of which sports are merely an outward expression. Brooklyn's history is that of a fiercely proud borough, one that was the first to fend off the British during the Revolutionary War and one that's been home to millions of hopeful immigrants over the centuries. In fact, Brooklyn was its own city until New York City absorbed it in 1898.
And if it were its own city today, Brooklyn would be the fourth-largest in the country behind only the rest of New York City, Los Angeles and Chicago.
Yet as populous as Brooklyn is, it has but one native son suiting up for Monday night's grudge match, compared to four from the Nets' old home of New Jersey—Marshon Brooks and Tyshawn Taylor for the Nets, J.R. Smith and Chris Copeland for the Knicks.
Ironically enough, the lone Brooklynite in question, Carmelo Anthony, stars for Manhattan's most fawned-over basketball squad. Similarly, Jason Kidd, the player whose professional history is most closely intertwined with the Nets, now runs with the Knicks and has done so to great effect this season.
New York is still a Knicks town and will remain so for quite some time. To their credit, though, the Nets have acted aggressively to change that in recent years.
In the summer of 2010, back when the Battle for LeBron was consuming hoops along the Hudson River, the Nets ventured into Manhattan in rather aggressive fashion. The team plastered a pair of murals depicting majority owner Mikhail Prokhorov and minority owner Jay-Z on the Island, one of which went up across the street from Madison Square Garden.
The city of Brooklyn has since taken its own aggressive stance against any potential encroachment by the Knicks. This past weekend, Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz issued a decree via YouTube branding all Knicks fans living in Nets territory as traitors:
Irrespective of Markowitz's threats, it will be the Knicks invading the Nets' territory on Monday, with something more than just bravado and bragging rights on the line. New York (9-3) and Brooklyn (8-4) are currently second and third, respectively, in the Eastern Conference and are jockeying for position atop the Atlantic Division.
Both started the season in scorching fashion—the Knicks at 6-0 and the Nets at 6-2—before recently hitting the skids and bouncing back shortly thereafter. Both have picked up quality wins but remain in search of true, lasting validation in a division dominated by the Celtics in recent years and a conference that belongs to the Heat until further notice.
Both are also star-studded—the Knicks with Anthony, Kidd, Tyson Chandler and an injured Amar'e Stoudemire; the Nets with Deron Williams, Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez—with an intriguing balance of grit and flair.
But it's the points at which these two teams diverge that may be the greatest sources of intrigue in this as-yet-budding rivalry. The Knicks are the old guard of New York, with an appropriately aged roster (the NBA's oldest) to match. The Nets, meanwhile, are a much younger squad representing an organization that's worked diligently to rebrand its unremarkable past.
The former prides itself on a history that's rich and tortured in turns, the latter on its lack of either in its new home.
Together, they will pen the latest chapter in a series that's old and new, delicately layered and indiscriminately forced upon the viewing public, in the house that Bruce Ratner built.
And, like all things tethered to the five Boroughs, it will be bigger, brasher and, in many ways, better than any other rivalry in the NBA today.
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