B-Brawl! Prokhorov, the Nets’ Rakish Russian, Aims A.K. at Garden Party as Dolan’s Knicks Brace for Red Scare

“Bruce Ratner, who I respect enormously and who made this possible–after I put the pressure on–he was never a jock, I was never a jock,” Mr. Markowitz said. “This man eats and breathes basketball. He’s looking at it, I don’t think as an investment, as in only dollars and cents; I think he’s looking at it as being a good owner.”

Mr. Markowitz cited the recent trade for Mr. Williams and said he hoped the new point guard would help lure a winning team to the borough. “We’ll have his back, that’s for sure. He’ll learn how lucky he is to be wearing a Brooklyn Nets uniform in not too long from now.”

But first the team must get him there; Mr. Williams can opt out of his contract in the summer of 2012, just when the franchise is set to occupy the brand-new Barclays Center.

On Monday evening, Newark did its best to woo him.

Jay-Z and Beyoncé sat in the Prudential Center’s front row; fans were showered with complimentary Williams T-shirts; the opening montage had been recast with his highlights; even the mascot, an overgrown silver fox, was wearing his No. 8 jersey.

Though the crowd was spotty–despite being within a few hundred seats of a sellout–the fans who were there gave him a rousing ovation.

Mr. Williams high-fived his teammates with a stone face. “I can’t really give any assurances or say that I’ll be here, when I don’t know what the future holds,” he had said in his first press conference last week, when asked about his long-term future with the Nets. On Friday, Mr. Prokhorov cut short his heli-skiing trip to fly to San Antonio and welcome him to the organization, which hopes he’ll be a cornerstone capable of luring other top talent.

While both teams tinker with their rosters over the next 16 months, the climax of this cold war won’t come until the summer of 2012, when Mr. Williams and two other superstars–Orlando’s Dwight Howard and New Orleans’ Chris Paul–are set to hit the open market.

But with the NBA renegotiating its labor contract this summer, it’s unclear just how much room Messrs. Dolan and Prokhorov will have to maneuver around each other. Will teams be able to exert a contractual clamp on their free agents like football’s franchise tag? And will a strict salary cap restrict the ability of both to spend freely? No one knows, and the pessimists predict a long lockout as the two sides try to hash it out.

For Knicks’ fans, though, the larger, looming question is who might be making the basketball decisions in 2012.

At Mr. Dolan’s press conference, after introducing Mr. Anthony, the owner launched into an unprompted screed against rumors that he had overruled Mr. Walsh and was instead heeding the counsel of Isiah Thomas, Mr. Walsh’s predecessor, who stuffed the team with an underperforming cast of bloated contracts.

“While Isiah Thomas is a friend of mine, a very good friend of mine, he was not at all involved in this process,” Mr. Dolan volunteered to the crowd. “The trade was a complete effort with Donnie, Mike and I,” he said, as Mr. Walsh, whose contract expires in June, sat awkwardly next to him on another stool and head coach Mike D’Antoni stared straight ahead with his arms crossed.

“I’m a die-hard Knick fan,” said Shawn Mundinger, a season-ticket holder who was wearing a Ronnie Turiaf jersey on Wednesday night. He commutes to the Garden from Westhampton, even though he has to wake up at 5 a.m. for his shifts as a sanitation worker. “But if [Mr. Thomas] was ever to come back, in any way, shape or form, and the Knicks really aren’t a contender, I think I’d give up my seats. I know a lot of people who feel the same way. He’s just toxic, always has been.”

“In my opinion, Dolan will not bring Isiah Thomas back,” said Dan Klores, the veteran PR man turned documentarian, who met Mr. Walsh in 1967, and then helped him land the Knicks job four decades later. “Donnie went through the two worst years of his professional career, and it would be wonderful to have him see the fruits of his labor.”

Mr. Klores, a Brooklyn native, was cautiously optimistic about what the new rivalry might mean. “Obviously, it’s a great time for New York basketball,” he said. “Unless the people running New York basketball screw it up.”

rpillifant@observer.com

Matt Chaban contributed reporting.