With the Brooklyn Nets making a play to take over the Big Apple, longtime fans of the woeful New York Knicks consider their options
Author Matthew Shaer Illustration Greg Kletsel
Generally speaking, diehard sports fans are not a fickle breed. We latch onto a team in childhood, and that team becomes part of our identity, through the bad seasons, the good seasons and those rare seasons that lead us all the way to a championship. But what happens when a new team moves to our town––a team that plays at a sparkling new arena right down the block? Is it possible that our lifelong allegiance might actually be shaken?
The latest test case for this scenario is New York, a city that, while famous for being a basketball mecca, has long played host to only a single NBA team: the Knicks. Then, in 2012, Russian business mogul Mikhail Prokhorov––along with then–minority owner Jay Z––moved the ailing New Jersey Nets across New York Harbor to a new home at the $800 million Barclays Center, smack dab in the middle of downtown Brooklyn.
Almost immediately, Prokhorov set about recruiting fans from the ranks of the Blue and Orange, setting up a large Brooklyn Nets billboard across from Madison Square Garden, where the Knicks play, and investing heavily in a “Hello Brooklyn” ad campaign featuring the mugs of the Nets’ top talent. “We got to start converting some of these longtime Knicks fans that live in Brooklyn to Brooklyn Nets fans,” Paul Pierce, one of the newer members of the Nets, has said.
The Nets played respectable basketball in their debut season, finishing with a 49-33 record before exiting––courtesy of the Chicago Bulls––in the first round of the playoffs. For this season, their sophomore effort in the Big Apple, the team has been significantly retooled: There’s a new head coach, the former all-star Jason Kidd, and a new roster of championship-caliber veterans, such as Pierce and Kevin Garnett. The moves have yet to pay off, but all the while, the Knicks’ fortunes have continued to trend in a downward spiral. The question now is whether the Nets, as Prokhorov and Pierce hope, can convince devotees of the wayward Knicks––specifically those fans living in Brooklyn, within shouting range of the Barclays Center––to jump ship.
An admittedly unscientific study by Hemispheres suggests that they can, although it certainly won’t be easy.
Exhibit A: The proud turncoat. Aside from a four-year sojourn in Pennsylvania, for college, RG Daniels, an author and Brooklynite, has spent all of his 34 years in New York, as a Knicks fan. And yet by 2012, he recalled recently, he had grown increasingly dissatisfied with the actions of Knicks owner James Dolan, who remains deeply unpopular with fans. (Among Dolan’s many perceived sins: the decision to raise ticket prices by an average of 49 percent, the decision not to match the Houston Rockets’ $25.1 million offer for phenom point guard Jeremy Lin, and a general inability to get the once great Knicks back on a winning track.)
Last July, over the howls of the online commentariat, Daniels took to the popular MTV Guy Code blog to break the news: He could no longer endure the pain. He was now officially a fan of the Brooklyn Nets. In case anyone missed the point, he posted a digital diptych of selfies: an unsmiling Daniels on the left, in a blue Knicks T-shirt, and a smirking Daniels on the right, in all-black Nets gear.
His argument for the flip-flop is straightforward and businesslike: “If really mediocre and pitiful basketball is being played at the Garden, and nothing is being done to reverse that, why should I stick with the Knicks?” he asks. “The bottom line is that I don’t care to spend my money on a product that’s not meeting my expectations.”
Exhibit B: The fan that can’t give up on a lifelong allegiance but likes the spirit and energy of the new team, and the idea that, finally, there’s an organization that belongs exclusively to his own borough. Ian Bassin is a “proud Brooklynite” who has, in his own words, “bled blue and orange” since he was a kid, and yet, in his mid-30s, he liked the idea of “not having to pull my hair out anymore over every boneheaded thing the Knicks ownership did.” He also liked the idea of sauntering a few blocks down the road to the Barclays Center, rather than schlepping into Manhattan by train, only to pay a small fortune for seats at the Garden. And so in 2012 Bassin found himself at Barclays, watching the first game between the Nets and the Knicks. He thought that “perhaps being thrown into the fire of the rivalry would reveal a truth to me. I had to hold myself back from joining the ‘Brooooklyn, Brooooklyn’ chants––my mouth wanted to say it, but my heart just couldn’t.”
Since then, Bassin has “wrestled with how to square my allegiance to the Knicks with my allegiance to my neighborhood and borough.” The answer, so far, is a fence-sitter’s stance: “I’ve decided I’ll root for the Nets whenever they play anyone but the Knicks, but in the crosstown rivalry, I may live next to the Barclays Center, but my heart lives at Madison Square Garden.”
Exhibit C: The flip-flopper who finally found his way home again. One evening last year, Clifford Larcom, a 31-year-old resident of Manhattan’s West Village who works in Park Slope, a tree-lined Brooklyn neighborhood not far from Barclays, dashed off a hasty email to his friends, renouncing, once and for all, his allegiance to the New York Knicks, and proclaiming his intention to root for the Nets.
But when the day dawned to actually make the move, Larcom found himself mired in a crisis of conscience. “Twenty-two years of being a Knicks fan was just too hard to break,” he recalls. “I had spent too much time watching Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston and even Chris Childs to just stop being a fan of the organization. So after the first game of the 2012 NBA season I put my tail between my legs and told my friends that the three-week basketball affair was over. Always a Knick.”
MATTHEW SHAER is the author of The Sinking of the Bounty: The True Story of a Tragic Shipwreck and Its Aftermath. He writes for New York, Harper’s and others.