We Don't Live Here Anymore

The Brooklyn Nets are a mediocre, tacky, and mostly heart-free basketball team. But give them time.
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There was, for months, a document on my desktop called "Human Lamborghinis," which contained one sentence—it started "I was not born enlightened" and did not end in a way I particularly care to relate. It was that and a bunch of links detailing various ways in which the Brooklyn Nets were tacky or shitty or seemed tenuously reflective of some rotten trend or other in the culture, at the given moment that I cut and pasted, with great purpose and journalistic care, a hyperlink into that document. I deleted it some time ago, when it became clear that it—the lumpen-mediocre team itself, but also the idea of exacting literary vengeance on the organization that left my home state and dumped coolly down some brand-managed memory hole the terrible and vital teams of my youth—was not really worth the time. I still mostly think this, actually. And now the Nets are done with their first season in Brooklyn and here we all are.

The Nets I grew up with, and during the raging peak years of my most problematic transference grew up as, mattered a great deal to me, and also to some people I care about. But then, as they must have, they stopped mattering as much, as we got older and needed them less. It eased things along that this coincided with a lost last half-decade in Jersey under the ownership of Bruce Ratner, a renowned penguin-shaped subsidy-ninja of the New York real estate scene. The Nets spent the bleak shoulder of their time in Jersey engaged in furious brand triage, losing games and stunt-marketing and stripping assets and generally side-eyeing the whole idea of being a basketball team in Jersey and Jersey itself; the witless replacement of the words "New Jersey" with the word "Nets" from the front of the team's uniforms reflects what Brett Yormark, the team's buzz-addicted and mostly defective marketing boss, was up to during this period. It was a relief when they finally left, a long insult ended.

It dragged pitifully on as the team went about sketching and skeeving and tax-breaking its way into a new arena, making and almost immediately breaking various civic-minded promises to New York City pols who never seemed all that inclined to hold them to any sort of account. On and around the site that now is the Barclays Center, Ratner was to have built housing—a decent but non-binding percentage of it designated for affordable housing—and a park and some other things he has not and will never build. He promised tens of thousands of phantom jobs; if he creates a tenth of those, most will be in fields that involve benefit-free 25-hour weeks and a polo shirt with a nametag on it. Ratner won't even be called an ass for this.

What's there instead is a robustly subsidized new arena—as a New York taxpayer, I'm a little queasy at having done my part to help build it—and the team that plays there and burgeoning new demographics and exciting synergy opportunities and so Yormarkianly on. Every Nets player I ever cared about or could care about, every vestigial vestige of the old team that I made years ago into a doomed avatar for myself and my home state and my wild and violent teenaged hopes—all of that is long gone, subsumed first into some new hashtag campaign, then the rollout of some striking new uniforms and much talk of Brooklyn As Brand.

This is the queasiest way to watch your childhood sports dreams expire: to see them shrunk and monetized and fit into some grand marketing gambit, one cynicism after another. And then the goofy-grim punchline of the whole thing: these Nets—all those boldly branded flavors somehow the same shade of oatmeal; dull to watch and expensively meh in most every way—aren't even interesting enough to hate. They were and are and are likely to remain for some while exactly what they deserve to be: something so bleak and blank and boring as to cancel out any possible strong feelings one could have about them; an identikit glass luxury tower with no entrance. Hello Brooklyn, then: here you go.

***

Deron Williams, Brook Lopez, the noble but crashed-out Gerald Wallace, the mercurial and increasingly garbage-timed MarShon Brooks and expired meat-form Kris Humphries were the only players to cross those bridges from Jersey to Brooklyn. The rest of the team is the rest of the team—Andray Blatche and C.J. Watson and cranky old Jerry Stackhouse, and other oldish NBA names fans will recognize without any great affection. The sum is a mostly character-less and yet very expensive team playing corporate-casual middle-ball for an old and weird borough—another wave of posh immigrants, buying the right to some new identity and adding not so terribly much.

The Nets were, when they moved, an abstraction—human diamonds of various karat on the five-finger ring of the auto-parodic Russian sketchocrat who'd bought them from Ratner years before with something like this tacky, irrelevant future in mind. They were a property to be flipped from the moment Ratner bought the team; of course some gaudy arriviste bought them and applied gold leaf and sex-mirrors to the ceilings and went all marble everything, but that's an old story and anyway whatever.

Brooklyn people who wanted a team, or at any rate got one, were free to find something to love in this new neighbor. But the rest of it, the whole fakey-fake branded enterprise and the artsily distressed metal edifice on Flatbush—its screen beaming finance commercials onto Flatbush Avenue all night long, some haywire bit of George Saunders satire bathing a still-humble corner in wealth-management bromides—and the over-it semi-stars chucking and half-measuring and all the corny rest of the Nets thing? How, as a famous part-owner once said, could I ever care?

Except that of course I'd cared about worse teams, because of where they were and what it meant to me that they were there. This team, or at any rate a team with a similar name, was my home, once—my old home, where I shrieked and kicked holes in the walls and grew up. And then it was flipped and re-flipped and foreclosed upon, the deed parsed and passed on and on unto and into bleak corporate anonymity. What I once insisted on seeing as more than a basketball team became, undeniably and inevitably, a basketball team—a property, an entertainment enterprise and organization and brand, the thing in the arena. That the Nets wound up hollow and unlovable is one thing, but what that all means to me and the few who cared about the New Jersey Nets converges, finally, on "Cool Story, Bro, and sorry about your stupid awful basketball team." So forget about me and my sad friends, then.

***

Forget us, we're done. There's a new thing on Flatbush Avenue. It means something to me that I cared a great deal about the likes of Tate George and Dwayne Schintzius and Jason Collins, cared way more than I probably should have for much of my life. But of course it means something to me: those are my memories, that was my life. It's the way that this whole thing works and it's very good that some other kid, for some other reason of his or her choice, will make a similarly strange and unwise emotional investment in, say, Reggie Evans or Gerald Wallace—these are the sort of investments some kids make, and I can't tell you yet how or if it pays off, but it does at least give you something to scream about at a time in your life when you really need to scream. That kid will enter the same uneasy and intermittently masochistic symbiosis with these goofs, and get something from that. Teams belong to a great many people, all of whom get from them what they give, and what they need.

And here, finally, is the real pity of these glossy, empty Nets. Because while they are of course a brand and a business and so on, they're also a thing that belongs to a community, and that community deserves a lot more than the Nets presently appear interested in giving. These Nets have been defined during the Yormark years, and notably during the tenure of sketchy new owner Mikhail Prokhorov, by their pursuit of buzz and splash, one posturing brand-building boomlet after another leading in a small, loud circle. Superstars—any kind, really, whatever the price—are accumulated; Phil Jackson is ritualistically pursued, as if he'd bother sullying his own meticulously maintained brand by becoming some wakeboarding playboy-plutocrat's under-vizier on this island of misfit basketball toys. The team itself is the last consideration, and shows it: the Nets are inert and adrift on the court, worn shiny and faceless after all these years of being manhandled and milked by various small, clammy hands.

So in that way, the Nets are still Bruce Ratner's team, and a team that looks like one of his real estate developments—glossy and towering but also half-empty and unwelcoming, luxurious but palpably haphazard, too expensive by half and sinking somewhat, wreathed in frank and increasingly hard-to-miss disdain for the people who might someday call it home. It's no place I'd want to be, or even visit, but then it's not for me. I live someplace else now, and to the extent that I feel for the fans getting sold this shoddily built, energetically marketed concrete box, it's because they deserve better. They deserve a team worth feeling complicated feelings about, and they're getting the fake comfort of the dullest and most antiseptic luxury instead.

But those fans will have that team, in time, because that is also how it works. They'll make it. People will make the Nets theirs for whatever reasons people have ever done that with this franchise, and hopefully the Nets will somehow come to deserve that time and trust and give those fans something to come home to, embrace them as neighbors and friends instead of revenue wells to pump for seat license fees and marked-up hot dogs. But I think humanity will win it all the same: people will move in, fumigate and exorcise and repaint. It takes time, and we seldom like our landlords, but home is what you make it, and home is important.


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