Basketball is back. Three weeks after opening night was canceled in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, four months after the Knicks let Jeremy Lin slip out of town, 13 years since the Knicks’ fluke run to the NBA finals, and two decades since Pat Riley’s tough-guy team captivated New York in the early years of the Giuliani era, fans in the world’s greatest basketball city care without cynicism again.
The Isiah Thomas era and the Knicks’ failed pursuit of LeBron James are old news. The Nets’ long struggle for big-city relevance got lost somewhere in New York harbor. When the teams squared off Monday night in Brooklyn’s new Barclays Center, the city had plenty to cheer about: real stars, the top two spots in the Atlantic Division standings and the eyes of millions upon us.
“Brooooooklyn,” they sang in the style of Biggie Smalls—the best rallying cry in American sports—when the Nets scored a bucket. “MVP!” they chanted when Knicks star Carmelo Anthony stepped to the free throw line. The crowd was so loud at times it was hard to believe that the 17,000-plus fans weren’t all cheering for the same side.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg was among them, as were Michael Strahan, Charlie Rose, Richard Gere and, of course, Nets part-owner Jay-Z and his wife Beyoncé. By our count, there were 100 members of the press on hand, including representatives from Chinese, German and Italian outlets. ESPN had 12 journalists at the game, in case you were wondering how the sports network gauged its importance.
In the end, Mr. Anthony missed a jumper that would have won the game in regulation, and the Nets outlasted the Knicks in overtime. It didn’t matter, much.
For a night, we could forget that the Knicks hadn’t won a title in 40 years, forget about Bernard King’s balky knees and Patrick Ewing’s shaky nerves, forget about anything having to do with Mr. Thomas.
New York was back where it belonged, as the basketball center of the universe.
New York is a basketball town, God help us. There’s something in the collective DNA that tells us hoops is the most important sport, some vague understanding that there are neighborhoods where a kid can still become immortal on a playground, some distant memory of the days when teams traveled to media and not vice versa, the days when the Garden earned the right to be called Mecca.
So what if it’s an empty boast? So it’s been 40 years since Willis and Clyde led the team to glory, longer still since the city produced a truly elite player. (Best New York City product in the last 25 years is … Stephon Marbury?) Basketball is the ultimate confidence sport, and New York is the fake-it-till-you-make-it confidence town. Don’t forget the darker days when the city’s greatness wasn’t a given, the days of “It’s a nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live there,” when we could swap tales of Earl “the Goat” Manigault snatching quarters off Harlem backboards—or Willis Reed staggering onto the court for game seven of the 1970 finals, John Starks rising high over Jordan and Grant for a left-handed jam—and recognize a grace and gall and toughness we imagined in ourselves.
Suffice it to say the psychic stakes were high for us Knicks fans setting foot in the Barclays Center on Monday night. Indeed, in the years since Bruce Ratner first broke ground, I often feared that the Knicks’ woes would continue, that the hangover from Mr. Thomas’s tenure, when the team collected overweight players with fatter contracts, would never abate, that James Dolan would remain a pox on the franchise. And that, in the absence of a team they cared about, the fickle masses would give in to the allure of the hottest borough, the newer arena, the team with one owner who’s rich enough to run for Russian president and another who doesn’t simply not suck, but doesn’t suck so much that he’s married to Beyoncé.
Would I blame them? No. Excommunicate? Probably. But something would tear loose from the fabric of my city if New York were no longer a Knicks town.
I can report that a trip to the Nets’ new arena offers temptation enough for a lesser-willed fan to cross over: High ceilings (this is Brooklyn, so exposed ducts, natch) and open sightlines; a thoughtfully curated selection of local food (Spumoni Gardens for the natives, Fatty ’Cue for the arrivistes, Nathan’s for the tourists); instead of the light shows that often mar pregame introductions, a dignified volley of fireworks. Instead of stadium anthems, music that reminds you that Brooklyn belongs to the world. (We have to wonder, though, how big a cut the sound man is getting from Roc-A-Fella Records: with the exception of the periodic Biggie track, it was almost entirely Jay-Z’s catalog.)
Slick Rick played at halftime. He was pudgy, and some of the words were lost in the acoustics, but still, it was a classy nod to New York City’s hip-hop history, and something that’s hard to imagine going down at corporatized Madison Square Garden.
I can also report, happily, that on the evidence of one evening, the fan exodus isn’t happening. Led by Mr. Anthony—reinspired, the sportswriters say, and leaner at the waist after playing alongside Mr. James in the London Olympics—and Tyson Chandler, the biggest man on the court, if not tip to toe, then certainly by the size of his heart, the Knicks have the look of a title contender. Maybe not a favorite, but at least a plausible long shot. It’s not just the fans who think so: the team filled out its roster for this season with veterans like Jason Kidd and Rasheed Wallace, the type of already-rich players lured not by the biggest paycheck but by the best title shot.
So the Nets fans were more numerous, more conspicuous in their “Fan Since Day One” badges (oh really?) and black-and-white Brooklyn gear. Knicks fans were, if not louder, better at the business of being fans. They chanted “Defense” from the first possession and serenaded Mr. Anthony at the free-throw line. Maybe it was simple sports loyalty, as Spike Lee, the world’s most public Knicks fan, tweeted at Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz: “With All Due Respect I’ve Been A NEW YORK KNICERBOCKERS Devotee Since 1967, Not Gonna Switch.” And as Mike Williams, a Knicks fan from East New York, Brooklyn, told us in the spacious bowels of the arena, “Knicks fans have been Knicks fans forever. The Nets are just a novelty.”
But let’s not overindulge in name-calling, at least not in the afterglow of this happy new rivalry. Who cares if the black-and-white-clad masses remember nothing of the Drazen Petrovic tragedy, the Derrick Coleman disappointment, if they had to read the banners hanging from the rafters to know the Nets won a pair of ABA titles in the days before the merger?
Instead, let’s celebrate for a moment the improbable course that led these two teams to their current exalted status. Nets general manager Billy King, who achieved middling results as the decision-maker for the Philadelphia 76ers, bet that by paying heavily for swingman Joe Johnson, late of the Atlanta Hawks, he could convince Deron Williams, his star free agent point guard, to re-sign with the Nets.
Meanwhile, if the Knicks are as good as their early play has promised, the fans will owe the team’s salvation (or at least, above-averageness) to the last figure they’d expect: current GM Glen Grunwald didn’t just play college ball with Isiah Thomas at Indiana University, he was hired by Zeke on two separate occasions. The Knicks are wont to downplay the relationship between the pair, lest they stoke our suspicions that the former GM is still conspiring to ruin the team. Mr. Thomas isn’t so coy: “I love Glen, he’s one of my favorite people on earth,” he told ESPN Radio last summer.
Who cares? Like players, executives come and go: love and hatred for them are fleeting emotions, and for the moment, Mr. Grunwald’s free-agent signing of shot-blocker Mr. Chandler and installation of defensive-minded head coach Mike Woodson (another one of Mr. Thomas’s Indiana pals), are all anyone needs to know.
The Brooklyn partisans can speak for themselves. Mark Anise, a Brooklyn resident who loves his borough so much he had a Nets ‘B’ tattooed on his right bicep on the ground floor of the Barclays Center, told me: “Basketball was the one sport where I always rooted for the name on the back of the jersey. I always said if Brooklyn got a team, then I’d root for the name on the front.”
Never one to mince words when it comes to his love for his hometown, Mr. Markowitz emailed The Observer, “Our fans are so wild, so over-the-top, so proud and so loud that even residents of the outer borough of Manhattan will hear us cheering for the best team in New York and the best team in the NBA, the Brooklyn Nets.”
On the way down to the postgame press conference, I passed an usher with his hands clasped in the air in the shape of the Roc-A-Fella diamond in an homage to Jay-Z. “We’re coming for you, Spike,” a colleague usher said to Mr. Lee, who wasn’t in the arena, or to no one. Or everyone.
Well, let them come—it’s good to have a rival. The great Knicks team of my youth, Pat Riley’s boys, tapped into the ethos of 1990s New York: tough as Charles Oakley, the man who used to ride an exercise bike to the point of tears, and cocky as John Starks, who played his college ball in nowhere Oklahoma, and believed even then that he was better than any of the anointed kings of the NBA. And so we loved them for it.
In the hearts of the city’s sports fans, they were displaced by Derek Jeter’s Yankees: brilliant hardworking men who made their fortune in New York City, tapped in less to the town’s blue collar roots than to the Wall Street princes who defined a revitalized city.
These Knicks aren’t that tough or that classy, and neither are these Nets. But the city doesn’t need an NBA title. Yet. For the moment, it’s enough to care.