They Can't All Be Winners, Part 12: Brooklyn Nets

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The Brooklyn Nets play in a rust-gilded mausoleum and play like a thing that belongs inside a mausoleum. The franchise has been capped out, mediocre, and on the verge of sale for a while now, because they’re more investment than basketball team, purchased by a Russian oligarch who sought to turn them into a luxury brand and a champion, pursuing those ends with an impatience that forecasted disaster. Well, a disaster that’s also a massive financial success. Whenever Putin’s buddy cashes out, he’ll add to his robust track record of falling ass-backwards into embarrassing wealth. But the Nets’ roster: woof. This squad is all kinds of screwed up, won’t have a chance to compete for much of anything for at least five years.

This dark farce would be too on-the-nose to work as the plot of a satirical novel. The Nets are the league’s purest reflection of America’s second gilded age: some corrupt billionaire asshole shows up talking a big game, fails unequivocally, and backs away from his folly richer than ever, leaving the plebeians to deal with the unpleasant aftermath. The Nets are a fucking blight: emptily hip, hashtaggy, bland, and untalented. They’re a skyscraper abandoned halfway through the construction process, a towering steel-and-glass middle finger, a totem of plutocrat sociopathy.

It’s discomfiting, when you think about the unscrupulous folks who govern them, to conceive of sports fandom as willful helplessness. You invest deeply in something over which you have no power, let it batter you emotionally or uplift you, leave you bored or riveted or proud or upset. The bond among ourselves and our favorite players and teams is profound enough that it sometimes doesn’t seem like a one-way relationship, but it is. We care very much, and the people involved care for us not at all, outside of perhaps a vague sort of appreciation of our appreciation. Friend of the Classical Fredorrarci put it best when he named his blog: Sport Is A TV Show. We get to watch. And occasionally pay for stadiums.

It’s perverse, given that the source of so much of life’s anxiety can be traced back to the vastness of our impotence—we’re just dandelion seeds with social security numbers—that one of humanity’s most popular fun-time activities is sinking into the couch for a few hours and handing the psychic steering wheel over to a gaggle of muscular strangers, who are in turn employed by gin-bloated robber barons. I wouldn’t trust J.R. Smith with five dollars and instructions to grab me a ginger ale from the corner store, but I trust him with my feelings. I don’t trust Dan Gilbert, full stop. And yet I surrender to both of them on a regular basis. It’s an absurd arrangement.

It’s a rewarding one, too, which is why so many people bother entering into it. Surrender has its upside. If you can’t ghost through the lane and dunk over a six-foot-ten dude yourself, the next best thing is thrilling at someone else’s ability to make that happen, momentarily inhabiting their body as it hangs in the air. If you have trouble getting out of your own head, anything that pierces your narcissism like a sunbeam through a fog is invaluable. If the everyday is fraught with genuine horror and peril, then sports offer a dose of low-altitude stress. We get to care deeply about outcomes that don’t matter. We can feel angry or sad about a loss, then step outside of that pain and realize nothing bad has actually happened. We’re in a safe space.

Which means it’s especially depressing when that safe space looks exactly like the hazardously unfair world we watch games to retreat from. The problem with the Nets is not that they’re a lousy basketball team, but that they’re an anti-capitalist screed written in dumb contracts, sleepy blowouts, and market forces. They’re the product of a system that allows a guy who had the moral fortitude to buy a national industry off the back of a truck as the Soviet Union was dissolving to purchase and uproot a franchise, tie it in knots that will take years to untangle, then sell it at a huge markup. They’re working families losing their homes while bankers rack up commas. They’re teacher’s unions eating shit every time a city government overspends. They’re the World Islands of Dubai. They’re Mitt Romney’s tax rate. They remind you, constantly, of your impotence, and that, on some level or many, the world is not for you. And, not for nothing, they are a deeply lousy basketball team.

Here is where you may sigh forcefully: there is little we can do about any of this. The Nets, nor the bullshit of which they’re emblematic. All we can do is try to carve out a life, control what’s controllable, awake each day in the shadow of the wealthy class’s massive digit, and respond in kind. And if Brooklyn played in an empty mausoleum for all 41 games this season, that would be a start. Right back at you, Mikhail.

Previously on TCABW: Charlotte Hornets | Philadelphia 76ers | Houston Rockets | Los Angeles Lakers | Dallas Mavericks |Indiana Pacers | Oklahoma City Thunder | Memphis Grizzlies | Chicago Bulls | Washington Wizards | Cleveland Cavaliers

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