A warm if non-baseball observation to pass along in the midst of a brutal cold snap: the Nets belong in Brooklyn. I confirmed it Saturday night.
It was my second trip to Barclays Center. Last season’s was for novelty’s sake. This one was more for basketball. I’m pleased to report that no matter the cynical aspects attached to relocating a professional sports franchise in the midst of a planned real estate development, the Nets being plopped onto the O’Malley-lusted intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic feels right from a sports fandom perspective. I don’t know that it will work ultimately for the citizenry of the neighborhood or provide a platform to make the Nets legitimate title contenders, but I decided I like having them there.
I especially like my romantic notion that the Nets sort of came home to me when they moved to Brooklyn from New Jersey. I grew up with them in Uniondale until they vamoosed. I’d vaguely missed them all these years being in some inconvenient state, never mind the altogether wrong Basketball Association. Now they’re a train ride away.
When I told my sister of our plans to catch the Nets and Cavaliers in Brooklyn, she asked, very seriously, if it was safe. I wasn’t surprised. For a generation of Long Islanders raised on tales of how lucky they were to have been moved out of their ancestral borough, it was a reflexive response. My parents loved Brooklyn in the rearview mirror, but except for visits to relatives or doctors, they wanted no part of it in real time when we were kids.
In certain precincts of my family, it will always be 1957 when it comes to broaching Brooklyn. The Dodgers will always be going one way and we’ll always be going the other way, neither party having any desire to stick around. For me, “the Brooklyn train” was always the one you didn’t want to be on out of Long Beach, because it meant changing at Jamaica if I was going to Manhattan…and where else would I be going? Now, with the Nets at the other end of the ride, I embrace the Brooklyn train. It takes me to my basketball team. The hop across the platform, coming and going, is a small logistical surcharge to pay.
Barclays Center is wonderfully gleamy in that simultaneously gorgeous yet offputting way contemporary sports palaces insist on greeting you. You can’t escalate to the not-so-cheap seats without passing the amenity-laden levels. I didn’t come for amenities, but I don’t care for having them fill my peripheral vision, reminding me that tonight they’re not accessible to me. More importantly, the sightlines are swell. I have no problem following the bouncing ball.
Like Citi Field, Barclays has plenty to sell you to eat, and based on my first visit last February, the grub is just as good (and just as expensive). But Barclays, unlike Citi, is in the middle of somewhere, so Saturday night, Stephanie and I braved the slush as well as our unfamiliarity with the area to enjoy dinner as people who aren’t necessarily sports fans do an hour-and-a-half before a game — in a restaurant.
I liked that a great deal. I’ve done it in other cities before baseball games. We used to do it that way en route to seeing the Liberty at the Garden during our passionate WNBA phase, though we’d usually settled for the Ranch 1 on 28th Street. Saturday night we walked 10 or so minutes into Park Slope for miso soup, sushi and sashimi. Then we walked 10 minutes back to Barclays. It reminded me of Bob Hartley and Cliff Murdock reminiscing about that place they used to go for burgers and beers before Loyola games on The Bob Newhart Show. It put me in mind, too, of the stories old-timers told about meeting at the Nedick’s by the old Garden on Eighth Avenue between 49th and 50th. It made me think of G.O. Cards getting a high school kid like Long Beach’s own Larry Brown into Knicks games before anybody knew what the NBA was exactly. It made me think of my dad going there for college doubleheaders when he was at NYU and the Violets played big-time basketball.
The Nets and Cavs were 45 minutes or more from tipping off and I was thinking great basketball thoughts, maybe even some that actually happened.
Basketball and I used to be real close. I mean we were like best friends when we were kids. Then basketball and I went our separate ways. It’s a little awkward when we cross paths nowadays. We usually act as if we’re strangers with no shared history whatsoever. Once in a great while, though, I can get together with basketball and find we’re still capable of hitting it off as if the intervening decades hadn’t changed a thing.
That was me and basketball Saturday night, the only Saturday night home game all year on the Nets’ schedule. Too bad. To my mind, so informed at the age of six, basketball games should be played at home on Saturday night. First game of any kind I ever went to was the Knicks on a Saturday night late in 1969 when my parents had season tickets and the Knicks were owning the league. I loved the Knicks like I loved the Mets in 1969. I loved the Knicks of that era so much that I could never keep loving them once that era was over. I know people who’ve treated post-glory Mets teams that way, failing to embrace those who came after Carter and Hernandez and Strawberry and so on. I could never drift from the Mets just because they weren’t populated by great players anymore, but in a nutshell, that’s how I was with the Knicks once Willis Reed began the inevitable parade of championship retirements. There’ve been attempts at rapprochement between us over the decades, but relations between the Knicks and me are best described as estranged.
Yet I will always cherish what Saturday night at the Garden meant when I was six and seven. Saturday night at the Garden in 1969-70 was the epitome of sports and class. I got it immediately. I learned to applaud passes and appreciate picks and shout “CHARGE!” and chant “DEE-FENSE!” I can still hear John Condon’s voice announce who just scored and who was just fouled.
Saturday night at Barclays Center in 2013-14 — when the canned music never lets up and everything is a sponsorship opportunity — offered no more than a shadow of those formative evenings when I figured out how much fun it was being an informed fan, but a shadow is better than a void, just as Brooklyn is better than Newark, East Rutherford or Piscataway for my Nets needs.
It wasn’t an amazing game (the Nets won) and it wasn’t an amazing crowd (our section’s loudmouth bemoaned the failure of his “DEE-FENSE” to catch fire), but it felt right, just as getting off a train in Brooklyn did, just as dining casually near the arena did, just as sensing a fast break coalesce did. When you watch the NBA on TV, you get the idea that the only fans who exist are the amenity-catered VIPs on celebrity row. Up in the balcony, as it were, you’re reassured to know you’re among people who care enough to shout when your team doesn’t have the ball.
Y’know what else felt good? The train back to Jamaica. Most of us boarding at Atlantic Terminal had been to the game. We were couples on dates; families of four; a mother chaperoning a handful of children; a father and a son; bunches of buddies. Especially buddies. Buddies going to a basketball game in Brooklyn, now buddies coming home from a basketball game in Brooklyn…going home to Long Island. Basketball talk. Barclays Center talk. Talk about what’s out the window or what’s planned for tomorrow. The Nets aren’t good enough to be fashionable, but many of us had bought in. There were expensive Nets jackets and Nets caps purchased at Modell’s and underneath my parka I was wearing a Nets hoodie I ordered from Nets.com when it was discounted for Black Friday. The text certified the team that had relentlessly branded itself Brooklyn in 2012 was founded in 1967, which was absolutely true if you followed the ABA trail clear back to the Teaneck Armory before it wound through an array of stations you could imagine called out by an LIRR conductor near you: Commack Arena, the Island Garden, the Nassau Coliseum, the Rutgers Athletic Center, the Brendan Byrne Arena, the Prudential Center and Barclays Center.
Last stop, Barclays Center.
I wanted that hoodie because it commemorated my idealized good old Nets days, no matter that red, white and blue had turned black and white. I wear it as much as I do because I’m hoping to see some reasonably good new Nets days. Or just a few more Saturday night games over the next few winters.
Maybe there was a soul in the Long Island-bound crowd who was such an enormous Nets fan that he would have sought out the action in New Jersey on a Saturday night like this, but I’m guessing no. Or conceivably a Nets franchise that had stuck it out off Hempstead Turnpike post-1977 could’ve cultivated a rabid basketball following in Nassau and Suffolk, yet if two beautiful ABA championships won on the wings of Dr. J didn’t tangibly raise the roundball temperature on the Island, then probably not, either. Professional basketball, at least in these parts, seems to require being surrounded by something other than parking lots and parkways.
This, I determined Saturday night, was the way to go. The Brooklyn train. The Brooklyn Nets. Our team. My team for those occasions when I would decide to reacquaint myself with my long, lost childhood buddy. Maybe this team with whom I intermittently get into pickup games is never going to be the team around here, but when has that ever stopped a fan like me?