The amusing, yet hardly unexpected chorus of excuses and capitulations from Knicks fans the day after Round 1 of the “Battle of the Boroughs” went to the bums from Brooklyn – “it was just one game.” “The Knicks were missing Stat, Shump and Kidd.” “The Nets haven’t played anyone good yet” – do not upset me. For last night was something I was hoping to relish for a greater portion of my lifetime. Last night was personal.
As a kid growing up on Long Island in the shadow of Manhattan (and on the same land mass as Brooklyn), being a Nets fan was not a birthright. It was not hereditary. It was a choice. It was a choice I made in the summer of 1992-93 partly out of circumstance (my family was a Mets household and thus subscribed to Sports Channel, where the New Jersey Nets could be seen, and not MSG, where the Yankees and Knicks called home) but also, predominantly out of my affinity for the team’s players. The early 90s Knicks were clearly the better team, but featured a tired group of players and names who had been around the block – Ewing, Oakley, Smith and Riley. Sure, I guess John Starks had the potential to be a blue collar hero, but he always struck me as too erratic and crass for me to become a true believer. The Nets meanwhile presented a roster of youth and potential. Derrick Coleman and Kenny Anderson should have been great. And of course the Nets had the greatest underdog star I could ever hope to find in an era where Michael Jordan was at the top of his game.
I promise I won’t spill thousands of words about how much I love Drazen Petrovic again. For those who followed my writing at this site’s predecessor, you should be well versed in my feelings for him as a player and as a human being. Let’s just say Petro embodied why I voluntarily chose the Nets over the Knicks. As the youngest of two boys who frequently has his shots blocked in pick-up basketball by his older brother, there was no denying the affinity I had for the white guy from a foreign land who only needed opportunity to show how he could be a dominant force in the NBA.
But Petro died. Coleman and Anderson were busts. The Knicks wiped out the Nets in the first round of the 1994 Playoffs and went on to play 7 games in the NBA Finals that year (and lose) against the Houston Rockets. Why was I doing this to myself? Why did I subject myself to mockery when I showed up to school one day in a Kerry Kittles jersey while the rest of my classmates were more concerned about how their team was going to vanquish Reggie Miller or Michael Jordan en route to another postseason victory? Why wasn’t I surprised any time I opened to the Sports pages in my local newspaper, Newsday, and see a full spread of the Knicks on the back cover, while a short, AP write-up about the Nets latest 20 point loss to the Milwaukee Bucks or Toronto Raptors was buried somewhere near the horseracing results?
Was I just a Knicks hater first, and a Nets fan second? It’s true, I did cheer outrageously when Ewing’s finger roll rattled in and out of the rim against Indiana during the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 1995. I giggled when Jeff Van Gundy clung to Alonzo Mourning’s leg like some kind of rabid Chihuahua. I sat and stewed as the 1999 Knicks rode a hot streak into the NBA Finals before they finally were overcome by the San Antonio Spurs. I did all this while the Nets did nothing but lose, import more loser players, and pretty much make my life as a fan miserable.
But that never changed my love for them, and my yearning for them to be better than what they were. I kept cheering for the Nets because I truly believed one day, I would no longer be in the minority – or if I was still in the minority, I would at least be surrounded by more than one or two people who had my back in this fight. At first, I thought the Nets total domination of the Knicks in the first round of the 2004 Playoffs would have been a tipping point. But the Nets had already been to back-to-back Finals the previous two seasons, while the Knicks were languishing in their own executive incompetence. I would travel to the Izod Center for a Sunday afternoon Nets-Knicks matchup and still be surrounded by obnoxious Knicks fans, crowing about how once Stephon Marbury and Eddy Curry get going, their team will be unstoppable. I had to hear about how the only reason the Nets made the Finals those two years was because the Eastern Conference was so weak. I had to endure all this crossing state lines to sit at the “home” arena. What a farce.
From the day it was announced, I hinged my hopes on the fact that Brooklyn would change things. While I still hadn’t moved to the borough yet, I knew well enough that the people who lived in Brooklyn carried themselves completely different from the rest of the city. Any time I set foot in BK, it felt like a completely different American city, with its own identity, loves, passions and quirks. I listened to my dad wax poetic about weekday afternoons at Ebbets Field, watching Jackie, Pee Wee and the Duke. Surely Brooklyn would change the tides of this broken relationship, and I would have the added advantage of having been there when times were at their worst.
And then of course Brooklyn was delayed. The Nets got worse. The Knicks, finally cleansed from their Isaiah demons (sort of) would get better. The Knicks were going to get LeBron (they didn’t). The Knicks were going to get Carmelo (they did). Why don’t the Knicks trade Amare for Dwight Howard (why would any team make that trade with you?) Deron Williams will leave the Nets (he didn’t). Brook Lopez stinks (I disagree).
As Jerry Stackhouse nailed a corner three during OT last night to give the Brooklyn Nets the lead for good, it created a moment that went beyond just catharsis for me. That “BROOOKLYNN” chant to close out last night’s game was a tsunami that washed away 20 years of disappointment, embarrassment and loneliness. Looking at today’s back pages and seeing the New York media not only praise the Nets performance, but accept them as part of the fabric of the city is as surreal of an experience that I’ve ever had in my lifetime. Sure, it’s just sports. It’s just one game. Both of these teams may look (and play) completely different in a few months time. But it doesn’t change the fact that it mattered to me. It doesn’t change the fact that nobody can take the memory of last night away from me – because it was built on a foundation of so many other emotionally charged memories that preceded it. Sometimes games do transcend “just sports.” And last night was one of those moments for me.