Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 13, 2022

A Franchise Familiar with Moves Makes All the Wrong Ones

In the fifty-five years since the franchise’s 1967 founding as a charter member of the upstart American Basketball Association, the Nets have had homes on both sides of the Hudson River.  Conceived as a Manhattan-based rival to the NBA’s Knickerbockers, the team was originally to be called the New York Americans, with home games scheduled for the 69th Regiment Armory on Lexington Avenue.  But the Knicks’ front office did not take kindly to another professional team playing barely one mile from Madison Square Garden and pressured the Armory’s management into backing out of its deal with the new formed franchise from the fledgling league.  After some scrambling the renamed New Jersey Americans wound up playing in Teaneck, at least until the ABA’s first playoffs, when the team’s home arena was already booked.  That led to another move, this time out to Long Island, and subsequently another renaming when the New York Nets stayed for there the next eight seasons, shifting from one arena to another while winning a pair of ABA titles. 

The ABA and NBA merged in the summer of 1976, with the Nets and four other ABA clubs – the Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs, and Indiana Pacers – joining the senior league.  But while those three franchises played in cities new to the NBA, the Nets were firmly in Knicks territory, and the NBA assessed a $4.8 million territorial penalty against the club in addition to the $3.2 million joining fee paid by the other three ABA refugees.  That left the Nets strapped for cash, and after one more season of poorly attended games on Long Island, the franchise again decamped for New Jersey, after first forking over another $4 million to the Knicks for infringing on that club’s “exclusive” right to the market on the west side of the Hudson. 

All seemed settled for the next three decades, with the New Jersey Nets firmly relegated to second place in the affections of most Gotham hardcourt fans, though in truth most seasons neither club was very good.  The Knicks made it to the NBA Finals twice in the ‘90s with Patrick Ewing, and the Nets matched that in the early years of the next decade with a roster led by Jason Kidd, but championship parades eluded both franchises.  A couple years after New Jersey’s trips to the Finals, the collapse of a proposal for a new arena in Newark led to the sale of the franchise.  The new ownership group was led by real estate developer Bruce Ratner, who saw the basketball team as the principal tenant of a new arena that was to be the cornerstone of a massive project in the Prospect Park section of Brooklyn.  Local opposition and assorted lawsuits – though for once, none initiated by the Knicks – delayed the development for years, and by the time the franchise was finally able to issue uniforms with its current name and celebrate the opening of the Barclays Center in 2012, majority ownership had passed to Mikhail Prokhorov.  He in turn sold both the team and the arena, which remains the only completed piece of Ratner’s vision, to Joseph Tsai three years ago.

Through all those years, and locations, the New York media has done its best to gin up an intense rivalry between the Nets and Knicks.  Management of both teams bought into the hype a decade ago, as the Nets were skipping over Manhattan on the way from Newark to Brooklyn.  Giant posters featuring Nets stars appeared on buildings overlooking Madison Square Garden, and the Knickerbockers responded with TV ads dismissing the interlopers.  But these efforts have always felt forced, in large part because the supposed rivalry was between two middling clubs on the fringes of playoff contention.

That was true again last Wednesday, when the Knicks crossed the East River to meet the Nets for the first time this season.  Led by Kevin Durant’s triple-double, Brooklyn coasted past Manhattan 112-85.  But the win merely improved the Nets record to 5-7 while the loss pushed the Knicks mark a tick below .500 at 5-6, a half-game better than their cross-borough opponent.  Of course, the NBA season is young, so no doubt fans of both franchises remain hopeful that in the months to come their heroes will improve on these undistinguished, and barely distinguishable, early records. 

But if the action on the court and the records of both clubs was all too familiar, there was one big difference about this meeting of the Nets and Knicks.  While the Nets have moved frequently and gone through multiple owners, even as the Knicks have been housed at Madison Square Garden and been under the same corporate ownership for decades, with the same CEO for nearly a quarter-century, the Manhattan club has always generated far more off-court drama than the Brooklyn franchise, a sharp contrast that has often been because of the mercurial nature of team owner James Dolan.

Whether Dolan is slowing down, or losing interest, or just finally, in his mid-60’s, learning the limits of team ownership, the frequent eruptions that fans, and especially the Gotham media, have counted on for years have suddenly dissipated.  Fear not, tabloid headline writers, for the Brooklyn franchise is filling the breach.  A club that has demonstrated a capacity for boneheaded basketball moves, most famously the 2013 trade of five active players and the rights to four future first-round draft picks to the Celtics for over-the-hill stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, is now stacking up off-court errors.

Shortly before the Nets took on the Knicks, interim head coach Jacque Vaughn was given the permanent job, a little over a week after he had been promoted from his assistant role after Steve Nash was fired.  But in the intervening days, the Nets let it be known that the franchise intended to hire Ime Udoka, the second-year Celtics coach who was suspended for the season for what has been widely reported as an inappropriate relationship with a female subordinate.  It was at best breathtakingly tone deaf, and at worst utterly callous, for anyone in Brooklyn’s front office or owner’s suite to think it was a good idea to offer Udoka a lifeline back to the head coaching ranks just weeks after such a draconian action by another club.  Yet it’s clear that was exactly what the Nets wanted to do.

That Vaughn got what even he referred to as “the write-in vote” was surely because the franchise was already dealing with the fallout from its ham-handed handling of Kyrie Irving’s social media post touting a crudely antisemitic movie.  Fans throughout the NBA have long recognized that for all his enormous ability with a basketball in his hands, Irving’s personal views are often unpredictable and harmful.  What neither Irving, his team, nor the league seemed to grasp, is that opining that the earth is flat, or even refusing the COVID-19 vaccine, can be accepted as personal choices, either silly or foolish, but promoting hate speech is an entirely different form of individual expression.  Irving’s failure to apologize, and the initially muted reaction by the Nets, the NBA, and key sponsors like Nike only intensified the understandable backlash. 

Perhaps tomorrow or next week, Dolan will do something outrageous that will shift the harsh spotlight back to the Knicks.  Or maybe next spring, if the Nets, led by Irving’s scoring and Vaughn’s adroit roster management, are making a deep run through the postseason, this autumn’s off-court drama will be forgotten.  But don’t count on it.   

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