Inside of a pub in the Pacific Park development of downtown Brooklyn, in the type of place that has spotless floors and tulip glasses decorated with pink Delirium elephants, a group of men dressed in black and white sit in front of an array of beer taps. There is a massive taxidermied moose head mounted on one wall; framed sports memorabilia is bolted to another. It is quiet. There are just seven tables in the room, five of which are empty. The televisions on the wall show a smirkless Joel Embiid warming up for Game 2 of the first-round playoff series between the Brooklyn Nets and the Philadelphia 76ers, which is set to begin in about 30 minutes.
Tip-off is at 8 p.m., and as the minutes tick by, fans continue to trickle in. Morale at the bar is soaring: Just two days ago, the Nets—the no. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference, a team that didn’t clinch a playoff berth until the final weekend of the regular season—stole a 111-102 road victory from the mighty post-Process Sixers. Brooklyn was recently an NBA laughingstock; now, it has a path to plausibly advancing to the second round. “I want to go to Philly for Game 5,” one of the men says. “But I can’t, because we’re going to sweep.”
By the time Sixers forward Jimmy Butler scores the game’s first points, there are no open tables remaining, although there is plenty of room to move around. It is not hot, but it is loud. In the first quarter, nearly 100 miles from the Wells Fargo Center, the fans here chant for defense. They call Ben Simmons a bum. DeMarre Carroll hits back-to-back 3-pointers to crack open an early Nets lead, and shouts ricochet off the walls. One guy wearing a Jahlil Okafor jersey asks why I’m not cheering. I tell him I’m not a Nets fan. “As Nets fans, we can’t compare diehard-ness,” he responds. “There aren’t enough of us for that.”
The Nets are one of the feel-good stories of this NBA season. There was scattered optimism in the fall that they’d be able to break into the playoffs as part of a weak Eastern Conference, but not a lot given their 28-54 record in 2017-18. And yet they finished 42-40 and saw guard D’Angelo Russell blossom into an All-Star. They benefited from the sharpshooting of 3-point contest champion Joe Harris. They rallied from unlikely deficits, such as climbing out of a 25-point fourth-quarter hole to topple the Kings in March. They have gained national acclaim for being young and fun, and the hype surrounding them peaked after a series-opening win over the Sixers. Yet they also pose something of a local conundrum: How many New Yorkers are cheering for this team? How much does Brooklyn care about the surprising emergence of the Nets?
The scene at the pub provides at least a partial answer. Most of the people in the room are members of the Brooklyn Brigade, the soccer-style support group who sits in Section 114 of the Barclays Center for every Nets home game. The Brigade, or what would eventually become the Brigade, met for the first time in November 2012 because Bobby Edemeka didn’t know where to find other Nets fans.
Edemeka, the group’s president, didn’t root for the Nets until the franchise announced it would move from New Jersey to the borough following the 2011-12 season. When Edemeka heard the team would take up residence around the corner from where he grew up, he snapped up season tickets, started trekking to Newark for games, and became a regular on Nets Daily, the Nets’ SB Nation affiliate site.
In the fall of 2012, the Nets moved into the Barclays Center, a green-roofed, wood-and-glass-paneled mothership of an arena on Atlantic Avenue. The presentation was immaculate; to go to a Nets game looked, and frankly still looks, like a visit into the future. Fans enter the arena underneath a giant, halo-like wraparound monitor, pass through the glass doors and the ticket lines, and walk into a venue that feels as if it is swallowing you. But in the Nets’ inaugural season, the new arena couldn’t distract attendees from a number of problems, one of which was that the games felt sterile. If there was a passionate Nets fan base, nobody could hear it.
So Edemeka began an experiment: He posted in a Nets Daily comment section that he’d purchased 20 extra tickets to an early-season game and that he wanted 20 Nets diehards to join him. Plenty of users thought this was an elaborate scam, but 20 people showed up. “There was no dominant geography, you had Long Island, you had Queens,” Edemeka says. “I’d say more than geography, if they were a Mets fan or a Jets fan, they happened to be Nets fans.”
Edemeka repeated the process two or three more times during the 2012-13 season. He surveyed the section for the fans who brought the most energy to games, and invited them to keep coming back. By the end of that season, the group had given itself its name. By the end of 2013-14, the Nets had carved out a permanent place for the Brigade in Section 114.
The lean years that followed may have thinned the ranks of Nets fandom, but given the noise in the pub during the first half of Monday’s Game 2, it seems it didn’t diminish the enthusiasm among the most devoted portion of the base. The Nets stick with Philly through a scrappy first two quarters and head into the break trailing by only one. “Rihanna didn’t want you!” one fan shouts at Embiid through the screen as the teams make their way through the tunnels.
Then the third quarter begins. The Sixers start to score however they please. Embiid gets whatever he wants in the post. Simmons slashes to the hoop unopposed. Boban Marjanovic can’t miss from the midrange; Russell, meanwhile, loses the touch on his icicle floaters when lofting them above Boban’s outstretched arms. By the end of the period, the Sixers have scored 51 points, tied for the most in an NBA postseason quarter ever. Philly’s lead has ballooned to 29 in what will finish as a 145-123 rout. A member of the Brigade puts his arm around me.
“True fans,” he says, “stay and take their ass-whoopins.”
When the Nets left New Jersey, there was no hand-wringing about their departure. There was no jockeying at the state chamber of commerce; no proxy wars being waged by opportunistic businessmen, as there were when the Sonics left Seattle in 2008. Even the Nets fans, or whatever was left of them, didn’t seem particularly upset by the development.
The team’s last years in Jersey were crushing. In the Nets’ final three seasons before the move, they won a combined 58 games and shuffled through four different head coaches. Their leader in win shares in their final Jersey season was Kris Humphries. For those three seasons, they bounced between home games at the Izod Center in East Rutherford and the Prudential Center in Newark, struggling to fill the seats in both places. One promo was designed to get somebody, anybody, to the games: giveaways of reversible jerseys featuring a Nets player on one side and an opposing star on the other. “They’d have a jersey that, like, it would have [Courtney Lee] on one side and Kobe on the other,” says Devin Kharpertian, who covered the Nets for ESPN’s TrueHoop Network and YES during the team’s move and its first years in Brooklyn. I checked; a dual LeBron James and Jarvis Hayes jersey really existed.
Part of the problem was that the Nets never built a strong connection with any single part of the region. Since the team’s inception as the ABA’s New Jersey Americans in 1967, it never managed to stay put. After its debut season, it moved to Long Island, changed its name to the New York Nets, and played in the miniscule 6,500-seat Long Island Arena. A year later, it relocated to the even smaller Island Garden, and three years after that it settled into the larger Nassau Coliseum, a beloved arena where the NHL’s Islanders still find their best crowds. The Nets were still in a pre-merger world, far from the center of the city and hardly ever on television, when an electric young talent named Julius Erving led them to two ABA titles.
The success didn’t last. The NBA-ABA merger occurred in 1976, instantly altering the Nets’ trajectory. “When they merged into the NBA, they had to pay the NBA millions of dollars, just like the other ABA franchises,” says Frank Guridy, a professor of sport and urban history at Columbia University. “They had to sell Julius Erving to the Philadelphia 76ers, and then they moved to suburban New Jersey. ... And in New Jersey, they’re playing in the Meadowlands, which is basically nowhere, in an arena next to Giants Stadium, and there’s no fan base there.”
In a snap, whatever momentum the Nets had generated, whatever folklore could have existed out on Long Island, was gone. It is possible to imagine the Nets with the Islanders’ fan base, an adoring, raucous group built in the outer boroughs and suburbia. Instead, they had to start over from scratch, again. “East Rutherford is a no-place,” Guridy says. “It’s not even a city.”
The Nets struggled to attract a following during their first few decades in East Rutherford. Over their first 25 seasons in the NBA, they made it out of the opening round of the playoffs only once. In the early 2000s, teams led by Jason Kidd would make two consecutive trips to the Finals, only to fall to the Shaq-Kobe Lakers, and then the Robinson-Duncan Spurs. In 2004, the team traded for the high-flying Vince Carter in an attempt to enlarge its title window but never managed to reach the conference finals again.
By 2009, the team began to tank and gave up on the whatever fan base it had established in the closest thing the franchise had to a home. As the Nets abandoned its fans, the fans largely abandoned the Nets. “The words ‘New Jersey’ came off the team’s road uniforms and you won’t find them anywhere in the arena. Even the abbreviation is gone: If you watch a Nets game on TV—and please, don’t actually do this—the score will read something like ‘DALLAS 110, NETS 82,’” David Roth wrote for The Awl in 2010. “The relationship of people from New Jersey to the idea of being from Jersey is a complicated thing, but suffice to say that most anyone from the state would consider this a pretty brazen dick move.”
“It was the end of an era that everybody was ready for,” Kharpertian says. “I think about it in parallel to the Sacramento Kings, where there was a chance that they were going to move to Seattle and this huge horde of fans came together to put together a documentary and protest, and there was this huge uprising to keep the Kings in Sacramento. There was nothing like that in New Jersey. Like nothing. Nobody wanted them to stay.”
It is possible that nobody in New York wanted the Nets, either. If you live in or around the city, you’ve likely heard: There has always been a basketball team in New York City, and it’s about to get Kevin Durant and Zion Williamson. Maybe Kyrie Irving too.
The Knicks have been here the whole time. Their origins trace back to the 1940s, so long ago that their postseason results can be listed in terms like “Eliminated in Eastern Division Round Robin.” Since their inception, they have played in the same arena, Madison Square Garden, the most storied venue in sports. Events there have taken on mythical significance: Willis Reed playing through a torn thigh muscle in Game 7 of the 1970 Finals, or Larry Johnson swinging at Alonzo Mourning in 1997. When Charles Oakley was thrown out of MSG after an altercation with security guards in 2017, there was an outpouring of local support for the team’s former big man. When Patrick Ewing wasn’t interviewed for the team’s vacant head-coaching job in 2018, some Knicks fans were resentful: He is one of us. Why wouldn’t you at least give him a call?
“I’m working on a book about the ’90s teams, and people my age and older still have a love affair with them because they represented what a lot of people saw New York as,” says Chris Herring, a writer for FiveThirtyEight who was on the Knicks beat at The Wall Street Journal from 2012 to 2016. “Kind of a tough city where people work hard and it might not be the prettiest, but you always find a way to get things done.”
New York has always been vocal about how it sees itself, and one of the things it certainly sees itself as is a basketball city. The Knicks teams of the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s generally aligned with the city’s image, but those days are long gone. Ewing isn’t coaching the Knicks, but Georgetown. Oakley’s relationship with the franchise is frosty. The team has rarely made the playoffs over the last 20 seasons, and when it has it hasn’t advanced far. Ticket prices are high, and games are largely populated by corporate crowds and out-of-town fans. The team’s owner, James Dolan, is reviled. He bars fans who tell him to sell the team from MSG, and responds to angry fan mail by calling said fans alcoholics and telling them to root for the Nets.
Over the last 20 years the Knicks have been a team of disasters and failed overnight fixes, of mortgaging the future to bring in a superstar and then selling off a superstar for visions of the future. Still, they indisputably own the city. “I think on some level [Knicks fans] kind of detach the idea of the team having to be good to love them,” Herring says. “I think sometimes you love people, who when you think about how they’ve treated you, maybe you shouldn’t love them as much as you do, and I think that’s kind of the same way you could describe a lot of Knick fans.”
Originally, the Nets embraced a similar strategy, parachuting into Brooklyn and trying to steal the city from the Knicks with flash. They had the new arena, the new colors and branding, and Jay-Z sitting courtside. In 2013 they upped the ante by sending the Celtics three future first-round picks as part of a package deal to acquire veteran stars Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, and Jason Terry. That shortsighted trade would handicap the franchise for years to come, but now, finally it has settled and reset.
This is no longer one of New York basketball’s get-rich-quick schemes. In the wake of that trade, without any foreseeable route to a quick rebuild, the Nets forged a long-term plan. They hired Sean Marks, a young executive who’d previously held a high-ranking position in the Spurs front office, to be their general manager. They brought in Kenny Atkinson, a high-energy, scheme-forward Hawks assistant, to be their head coach. Both have stuck around for three seasons and helped pull the team out of the abyss. Perhaps more importantly, they’ve given this franchise a sense of comfort and continuity that it has long lacked. They’ve given the Nets an identity.
“I personally feel the most attachment to this iteration of Brooklyn Nets than I have to any other iteration through their seven seasons in Brooklyn,” Edemeka says. “There is that phrase you might have heard: ‘In Marks We Trust.’ I think that’s real, as opposed to in the past where things seemed a little slapdash and shot from the hip. Now you can tell that the front office has a plan.”
The plan has begun to bear fruit, and paved the way for the Nets to become the anti-Knicks. Everybody around New York basketball—Knicks fans, Nets fans, journalists, and more—echoes similar sentiments when speculating about the potential for Brooklyn’s rise. Signing a superstar would be great, but building something sturdy and sustainable—being what the Knicks aren’t—is what could truly establish the Nets as a draw in New York City. “If the Nets are actually committed, as opposed to just banking everything on a star player, that’s the difference,” Herring says. “The Knicks, whether they’ll admit it or not, have always looked for a savior of sorts. To go out and get Carmelo, to bring in Phil Jackson, to go out and get LeBron. And now it’s going to be Durant and Kyrie. … Fixing the culture is important.”
The Nets have been good before, but they’ve never strung together more than a handful of good seasons, and they’ve never done it in a place where they’ve developed a lasting connection with their community. That appears to be the goal now: The Nets’ “approach to becoming a part of the fabric of the borough was to start at the grassroots level on the ground in Brooklyn neighborhoods,” Mandy Gutmann, the team’s vice president of communications, wrote in an email, citing efforts such as when the Nets teamed up with the Food Bank for New York City to provide food to federal workers during the government shutdown in January.
The mission for the Knicks this summer is to morph into an immediate contender; the mission for the Nets is to stay the course, further ingratiating players like Caris LeVert and Spencer Dinwiddie to fans. While they still have a long way to go—for all of its newfound strides, Brooklyn ranked dead last in the NBA in average attendance this season—the team finally has a sense of hope. “I think it’s different here in Brooklyn,” says Ian Begley, who has covered the Knicks for ESPN.com since 2010. “You have a different cachet with the New York sports fan.”
New York will always, unmistakably, be a Knicks city. But if Brooklyn continues on its upward trajectory, Nets fandom may not always seem so rare. While the team finding its way out of the first round still feels like a long shot, that the shot exists at all is a sign that maybe the franchise has found its footing, and a lane in a city that already has a marquee team. “Growing up you would see these commercials with blind taste tests of the different types of peanut butter, where they’d cover the label and they’d ask somebody which peanut butter tastes better,” Edemeka says. “I feel like if you did an NBA version of that and you took the labels off the respective teams in New York—if you covered up the Knicks label, and if you covered up the Nets label—obviously, I’m biased, but I would think the Nets would score better than the Knicks on basically every metric.”
Back at the pub, it’s getting late. The Sixers starters are all on the bench. The Brigade is still cheering each bucket, but its enthusiasm is waning. Fans have come from all over the city—one works on Coney Island and has to be out of the house at 4:30 a.m.—and the start of the next day is creeping up. They talk to each other about Thursday and Game 3. Everything is going to be fine. We have home court now. We did what we needed to do.
Eventually, they shake hands and say goodbye. Outside, the temperature has dropped. It is cold and windy. The Barclays Center glows in the center of everything. Above it, the sky is black with specks of white.