Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Brooklyn Nets and Fandom

By Charlie Scaturro

Aside from providing NBA fans with seemingly endless entertainment since the Finals concluded about a month ago, the Nets move to Brooklyn has sparked a discussion about when it’s “acceptable” to become a fan of a certain team. This discussion really wasn’t very noteworthy before the Nets re-signed Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace, while they somehow mustered the courage to trade for Joe Johnson’s grotesque contract, but now that the Nets are a legitimate playoff team (at least they should be), and the Knicks seem hell bent on acquiring overweight point guards instead of retaining media darling Jeremy Lin while they simultaneously try to add every active NBA player over the age of 38, you could see why some Knicks fans might be contemplating a switch. Over the past few days, many have given their opinion about whether it’s ok for Knicks fans to become Nets fans, and as a native New Yorker who loves basketball, this topic hits especially close to home.

Despite the fact that the Knicks continue to shoot themselves in the foot, and the Heat figure to have a stranglehold on the Eastern Conference for as long as their Big 3 can co-exist, there hasn’t been a more exciting time to be an NBA fan in New York since Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston, Latrell Sprewell, and Jeff Van Gundy led the Knicks on a miraculous run to the Finals during the strike shortened 98’-99’ season.

The fact that Brooklyn has its first professional sports team since the Dodgers left in 1957 was reason enough to get people talking, and when the Nets committed close to $300 million to give Brooklyn’s lone professional sports team a relevant roster in just a few short weeks, a seemingly legitimate decision arose for basketball fans that call New York home. Speaking strictly from a relevance standpoint, whichever team New Yorkers decide to support they’ll be doing so for recognizable stars and front offices that won’t shy away from handing out big money in an attempt (although probably a misguided one) to quickly piece together the best team money can buy. Because everyone knows that the term “rebuilding” is off limits in New York.

With plenty of money being thrown around and brand new black and white Nets apparel littering every sporting goods store in the Tri-State Area, the arrival of a second professional basketball team in New York City has been a jarring and somewhat confusing experience thus far. At least from where I’m sitting.

Even as someone who follows sports religiously it’s difficult for me to remember (or even remember hearing about) a time when a second professional sports team moved to a city that already had a well-entrenched professional sports franchise. Sure, we’ve seen teams like the Cleveland Browns relocate to Baltimore and the Seattle Supersonics pack up and move to Oklahoma City in recent years, but those cities weren’t doubling the number of football or basketball teams their fans could root for when the Thunder and Ravens were introduced. The Nets landing in Brooklyn is unlike anything I’ve seen in my lifetime, and it figures that amidst this relatively unheard of set of circumstances that people in the five boroughs and basketball bloggers everywhere are going a little overboard about how Knicks fans and basketball fans in general should react to the Nets arrival.

Considering that it’s unlikely any of us will see anything quite like this again in our lifetime, it seems fairly legitimate that the internet’s going to blow up about the Knicks/Nets dilemma for the next two weeks, even though it will be annoying for anyone who doesn’t live in or care about New York.

The prospects of Billy King, a Russian billionaire, and Jay Z’s face (because that’s really all he is to the Nets organization; a face to help sell tickets. At least I hope he isn’t making any basketball decisions) at the helm of an NBA team in one of the biggest and most populous cities in America, throwing around hundreds of millions of dollars like, well, a billionaire Russian owner and mostly clueless GM, has nearly limitless potential. Besides the fact that the Nets front office sounds like a mad lib (seriously, a Russian billionaire, hip hop mogul, and Billy King running an NBA franchise?), when you combine a core of Williams, Johnson, and Wallace along with Brook Lopez and a few other solid pieces, the Nets are worth talking about. In about a month’s time, they’ve gone from a team that was best known for housing Kim Kardashian’s pseudo husband to one that should at least be relevant in the standings and entertaining on the back pages.

For someone who was born and raised in Brooklyn (and still resides there), the news that the Nets would be relocating to the borough I call home was initially more about the people who were relocated from their homes to make way for the Barclays center than it was about an actual NBA team moving into my backyard (you have to build the stadium first, right?). But as another forgettable New Jersey Nets season faded into oblivion, and the franchise officially relocated to Brooklyn, it became increasingly difficult for me to look the other way. I didn’t intend to pay the Brooklyn Nets much attention, but as I continued to hear the phrase “Brooklyn Nets” over and over, and I realized that they were actually moving here and would soon be playing games just a 15 minute walk from where I grew up, I understood that I had no choice but to become a Nets fan.

For me personally, becoming a Nets fan was one of the easiest and best decisions I’ve made in a long time, and this was partially because I was never a Knicks fan. My brothers, one of whom lived and died with the Pat Riley, Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley, John Starks, and Anthony Mason teams of the 90’s and the other who currently owns season tickets, have embraced the Knicks like many other basketball obsessed New Yorkers. But, for whatever reason, I never did. Maybe because I’ve enjoyed making fun of the Knicks futility more than I’ve actually enjoyed watching them play in recent years. Maybe because I’ve been exponentially more interested in college basketball than the NBA for quite a while now. Or maybe because I have a hard time believing that James Dolan is capable of tying his own shoes. But whatever the reason, I’ve never embraced the Knicks as my NBA team.

These lukewarm feelings I harbored for the Knicks didn’t mean I had another favorite team; instead I enjoyed the NBA as any kid who grew up playing basketball in New York City would (that was, of course, when college basketball wasn’t dominating my life).

The decision to become a Nets fan might not have been quite that simple, after all, pledging your allegiance to an NBA team can be a lot like trying to pick a girlfriend out of a crowd of gold diggers who are as likely to treat you well as they are to take your hard earned money and leave you feeling like an idiot for ever trusting they had your best interest in mind. But I figured that while my time spent cracking Knicks jokes to my brothers and simply enjoying the game was fun, it was time to commit.

So my decision was made in mid-June knowing full well that Deron Williams might bolt to the Mavericks and I could be left rooting for a team of castaways that traded away their lottery pick in a stacked draft for Gerald Wallace. Even so, my decision was made.

As for the Knicks fans who might be contemplating a change in loyalty, who am I to tell you that you can or can’t start supporting a new team that just moved to the city you presumably live in?

Personally, it seems strange to me when people get on their high horse about what fans can and cannot do. Obviously we all know a bad fan when we see one or are sitting next to one at a bar (a Ravens fan who wouldn’t shut up about how much she hated Joe Flacco as she proceeded to get shitfaced and continue to write him off even after he led Baltimore on a game winning touchdown drive against the 49ers this past Thanksgiving set the bar pretty high for me), but I don’t care much about people’s fantasy teams, and I don’t really care what their reasons are for being a fan in real life as long as they’re serious about being a fan.

The general rule of thumb I go by is if you’re going to call yourself a fan of any team then be a fan. Root for your team, know the players, know the coaches, root against your rivals, watch your teams respective draft like the fate of the world depends on it, and above all, enjoy being a fan. Enjoy getting way too worked up about a game that, in actuality, has little to no effect on your life in any way, but cheer like that couldn’t be any further from the truth. Go out and buy the jersey of your favorite player knowing full well that he’ll probably be shipped away in a year or two. Make sure you save up for a couple of weeks before doing so, but go watch your team play in person and enjoy paying $9.00 for a beer and $14.00 for subpar chicken fingers. None of it makes much sense, and it’s all just part of being a fan.

As for bandwagon fans, I can appreciate that other people’s lives don’t revolve around sports and that it’s a lot easier to start paying attention when a team in your geographical vicinity starts making a playoff run. Of course, those people who aren’t around from the beginning or who only get interested when the playoffs start, aren’t going to enjoy the postseason or a potential championship run nearly as much as the fans who actually care about their team and have been there through the good and the bad.

A few days ago, the Joe Johnson/Deron Williams introduction ceremony was held on the Brooklyn Borough Hall steps, which are located just a block away from where I went to high school. During my senior year we took a class picture on those same Borough Hall steps, and eight years ago I actually missed that picture because I was 18-years-old at the time and getting something to eat sounded like a much better idea than taking a picture with my senior class. This time around, I can thankfully say that I won’t be making the same mistake I did eight years ago when the Nets officially become a part of Brooklyn in a few months.

I don’t know whether most Nets fans are in the same boat I am or if they’re former Knicks fans who finally got fed up with James Dolan’s jackassery, but I don’t really care. As long as they’re not rooting for the Nets because they like the logo, and they actually show some level of commitment to the team, that’s a good starting point. Everyone else can argue about what makes a good fan or whether Knicks supporters have the “right” to start rooting for the Nets. Personally, I’m going to spend my time focusing on the guys on the court rather than the people in the stands.

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