Even if the professional ranks and recruiting ledgers no longer bear it out, New York City’s status as a basketball mecca—from the Rens to Rucker, Bob Cousy to Connie Hawkins, Goat to Globetrotters—remains written in the stars.
For years, the New York Knicks enjoyed near-total hegemony over the hearts and minds of Gotham’s roundball faithful with the New Jersey Nets being just far enough away to render a genuine rivalry moot.
But with their little NBA brother now blossoming in Brooklyn, the Knicks face the very real prospect of watching their long-loyal fanbase fall, slowly but surely, by the riverside.
So which team, exactly, can boast the upper hand of fandom?
It should surprise no one that the Nets and Knicks finished the 2013-14 season with two of the top five highest payrolls in the NBA. In fact, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, the $90 million in luxury taxes paid out by Brooklyn owner Mikhail Prokhorov was a league record.
What did all that bullion buy? A five-game second-round ouster at the hands of the Miami Heat.
The $90-plus million spent by James Dolan, meanwhile, couldn’t even guarantee the Knicks a playoff seed—in a historically woeful Eastern Conference, no less.
The fallout has yet to fully subside for Brooklyn, which parted awkward ways with first-year coach Jason Kidd after the longtime NBA great staged a failed front-office coup, per USA Today’s Jeff Zillgitt.
Kidd was eventually “traded” to the Milwaukee Bucks. Over the following days and weeks, the Nets’ near-future prospects continued to take a somewhat tumultuous turn—Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston both bolted for greener pastures and point guard Deron Williams underwent yet another round of ankle surgeries.
Brooklyn eventually landed respected skipper Lionel Hollins, whose defense-first approach should play well in a borough where the basketball language is written in grit and spoken in elbows.
Five miles due north, a comparably bloodless revolution was unfurling in the halls of Madison Square Garden. In a stunning political about-face, Dolan—no doubt cognizant of the growing rancor amongst his fans—officially let loose the reins to He of the 13 Rings, Phil Jackson.
Over the subsequent four months, Jackson parted ways with the disappointing Mike Woodson regime, hired Derek Fisher as a promising replacement, orchestrated a pre-draft trade that shed short money while bringing back both young assets and a triangle-ready point guard and—finally and most crucially of all—convinced Carmelo Anthony to double down as the team’s strategic cornerstone.
None of these moves guarantee a Garden resurrection, of course. But in terms of cleansing the Knicks' traditionally caustic culture, hiring Phil Jackson could well prove the single biggest boon to New York recapturing defected fans.
The Knicks might have enjoyed the more hopeful summer. As for their 2014-15 prospects, however, all signs point to once again playing the city’s second fiddle.
Winning In the Now
"Good for us, good for our brand, good for Brooklyn basketball," Nets point guard Deron Williams told Stefan Bondy of the New York Daily News ahead of last year's playoffs. "It's part of the takeover."
"Takeover" may be a bit hyperbolic. But in terms of wars and battles, it's hard to quibble with who's winning the latter.
Even after ridding itself of Tyson Chandler’s contract, New York’s cap-strapped status made even moderate upgrades a near impossibility. To be sure, Calderon was an impressive get—particularly given Jackson and Fisher’s insistence on a triangle-based system. It just might not be enough to put them over the playoff threshold.
Setting aside their colossal cash hemorrhage, the Nets boast more than enough depth to make a push for the No. 5 or 6 seed in the East. So long as Williams and Brook Lopez can stay healthy, that is.
Beyond that, Brooklyn has all but priced itself out of the 2015 free agent market, with Lopez, Williams and Joe Johnson slated to make a combined $59 million. Unless Lopez declines his player option—not impossible, given both his health history and his team’s murky future—the Nets can count on slipping even further down the conference ladder.
Here’s how Bleacher Report’s Frank Cesare put it in a column penned shortly after Brooklyn’s latest playoff demise:
In hindsight, it may have been in the Nets' best interest to sell high on the injury-prone players once thought to be cornerstones of the franchise: Williams and Lopez.
Prokhorov can't be blamed too much for his impatience to win, as it is human nature, but the lack of draft picks on the horizon coupled with the newfound negative sentiment for Brooklyn's flashy pieces has the franchise looking down the barrel of mediocrity.
Based on the current ledger, Brooklyn is at least two years away from reclaiming some semblance of salary flexibility.
The Knicks, on the other hand, understandably have their sights set squarely on next summer, when Rajon Rondo, Marc Gasol, Goran Dragic, LaMarcus Aldridge and a host of others hit the market. As far as climbing into contention, New York has the much more leisurely path out of the woods.
None of which will mean nearly as much without the full faith and credit of New York’s considerable basketball masses behind them.
A Passion’s Pull
In terms of marketing and branding—of the clandestine commercial strategies one needs when attempting a hostile fanbase takeover—the Brooklyn Nets couldn’t have played it more perfectly.
The Spartan starkness of black on white, Jay-Z as big-moneyed mascot, an arena that screams modernity, even the hip and hype of the sprawling enclave itself: The entire Nets aesthetic seemed purpose-built to siphon off the souls of the most downtrodden and doubt-ridden Knicks loyalists.
With a population one million stronger than its more famous neighbor, Brooklyn boasts plenty of potential consumers. But it’s in the Nets' appeal to sports tribalism—of painting the old guard as other—that could prove their most ready-made revolution.
For New York, the pull is much more nostalgic. Like so many teams that share their league’s beginnings, the Knicks are as much a birthright as a rooting interest. The sorrow wrought from a four-decade drought isn’t confined to a single generation.
And neither are the ghosts the Garden still boasts, nor the gestalt imbued by the 'Bockers of 1970 and 1973. For younger Knicks fans, those teams are as much theirs as their forbearers. That breed of allegiance isn’t so easily bought off.
"I think New York will always be a Knicks city, but Brooklyn is no slouch," filmmaker Michael Rapaport told New York Magazine's Joe DeLassio in a recent interview. "It’s a cool, sort of hip team to root for. And they’re competitive: They did better than we did this year. It’s going to take a long time for the fan base to change, because even the people in Brooklyn and the boroughs, they all grew up Knicks fans."
Sports passion is as quintessential a New York quality as you’ll find. But when one goes from bleeding blue and orange to buying black and white, it’s worth wondering—loyalty being commandments one through 10—whether these were sports souls ever worth saving in the first place.
Still, Brooklyn is bound to continue making inroads on the fan front. Given the borough’s youth-driven demographics and the team’s increased cultural cachet, it’s practically inevitable.
It just might not be enough.
These Colors Don't Run
It’s no accident the Knicks color scheme mimics the hue of New York City’s long-flown flag. Basketball was the Big Apple’s game long before the NBA came calling—hence the intentional adoption of history and heritage.
In time, Brooklyn’s heraldry will foster similar intergenerational allegiances, just as the New York Giants, New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers carved out their unique cultural quarters all those years ago.
That, as ESPN New York’s Mike Mazzeo highlighted in a 2013 point/counter-point with colleague Ian Begley, might be the biggest boon to Brooklyn's cause:
New York has historically been a Yankees town but became a Mets town briefly in the late 1980s when the Amazin's were winning and the Bombers stank.
The Nets obviously aren't as established as the Mets were, and the Knicks -- unlike the Yankees then -- are a pretty darn good team.
But if the Nets capture New York's next NBA title, they might just be able to capture control of the city as well.
All the same, as Begley underscores, only one has been seen—by natives and national onlookers alike—as the city’s once and future team:
What can the Nets do about that? They can win. But even when the New Jersey Nets went to back-to-back Finals in 2002 and '03, they didn't make a dent in the local market.
I don't think a Brooklyn title would make a significant dent in the Knicks' fan base. It's hard to see Knicks fans -- en masse -- jumping ship to pledge their allegiance to the Nets.
Not for nothing, but the Knicks wound up atop the debate’s attendant question (“Can this ever be a Nets town?”), with 64 percent of respondents answering in the negative (my emphasis).
Until the Knicks make amends for decades of futility, a fan exodus is all but unavoidable, even if it’s more a trickle than a torrent. But as Jackson and company steadily steer the ship to course, expect the as-yet-uninitiated—the young, the transplanted and the fair-weather alike—to reinforce the fan ranks.
Brooklyn’s first two seasons, though more brilliant in branding than basketball accomplishment, have earned it a sustainable staying power. Backed by an owner more than willing to break the bank, the Nets might even accomplish in quicker order what the Knicks have been trying to do since the Nixon Administration: win an NBA championship.
As for who holds the upper hand in hearts and minds, that requires a somewhat different calculus. Because for as real as Brooklyn’s threat may be, you’d be surprised how much years of heartbreak can harden the walls of fandom's will.