By Justin Monroe (@40yardsplash)
Three and a half blocks. That’s all that stands between the brownstone I grew up in and now co-own and the ass-end of the Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets. I’m not sure how many heaves of a basketball that is from the S. Portland stoop my family’s been sitting on since the late ’60s to the wavy, rusted steel siding that was made to look like it has that kind of history, but not many. Based on proximity, BK pride, appreciation of good point guard play, and even a love of minority owner Jay-Z’s music that dates back to his 1993 guest verse on Original Flavor’s “Can I Get Open,” I should be rocking a retro-cool Brooklyn Nets jersey right now. But I’m not. Nor will I ever, because for me fandom is as black and white as that apparel that’s flying off the shelves of the team store on Flatbush Ave. I’m an orange-and-blue-blood Knicks fan, and these colors don’t run (at least not on defense).
I’m aware how misplaced loyalty is in sports. The Knicks are not a sporting club that I belong to, paying dues in return for a vote’s say in operations. The Knicks are a business that exists primarily to make money. Winning is a secondary goal, as winners tend to make more money, but the concerns of fans don’t really count until they screw with the bottom line. My friend and colleague Damien Scott, who reps New Jersey with all his heart and now mourns the loss of a franchise that could have shared the Prudential Center with the NHL’s Devils and affected positive change in Newark, can attest to the fact that owners feel no loyalty to a region or its people. If something better comes along, businessmen will uproot.
For me fandom is as black and white as that apparel that’s flying off the shelves of the team store on Flatbush Ave. I’m an orange-and-blue-blood Knicks fan, and these colors don’t run (at least not on defense).
I am little more than a paying customer, a sucker, a sap who devotes his time and money to an idea of community despite the fact that players, coaches, and executives view me with apathy and even disdain for chiming in on their failings and expecting greatness from them that, quite frankly, I don’t achieve in my own life. Caring about a team, following box scores and player Twitter feeds, and using “we” when talking about a franchise are possibly the most inane things a grown man can do. Beyond claiming bragging rights with other deluded fans, what exactly does a team’s success do to improve my life? So why shouldn’t I shed one team for another, especially when the new one muscled its way into planted roots in my backyard?
It’s not as though the Knicks have filled my life with joy. Unlike fellow Brooklynite Knicks fan Spike Lee, a Fort Greene neighbor whose 40 Acres & A Mule Filmworks office is located around the block from my home, I wasn’t alive to enjoy the 1970 and ’73 championships of Willis Reed, Dave DeBusschere, Bill Bradley, Earl “The Pearl” Monroe, and Walt “Clyde” Frazier. Born in 1980, I watched some NBA in the ’80s but only got into the Knicks seriously during the early ’90s. For more than half of the time I’ve supported the Knicks they’ve been a joke both on and off the court.
I saw some close, exciting playoff exits during the Patrick Ewing era and revelled in Linsanity, that fever that spread throughout the city and the rest of the world when Harvard-educated Jeremy Lin emerged from obscurity to lift the Knicks and become the first Asian-American NBA star, but mostly the organization’s efforts have been calamitous. There have been spectacular individual on-court failings (Charles Smith, John Starks), near-record team futility (23-59 under head coach Larry Brown, then again under President of Basketball Operations turned coach Isiah Thomas), baffling contracts (Allan Houston, Jerome James, Eddy Curry), ill-advised trades (Antonio McDyess, Stephon Marbury, Carmelo Anthony), draft fiascos (Ron Artest >>> Vince Carter tea-bagging victim Frédéric Weis), sex scandals (Zeke, Starbury, Sta-Puft Eddy Curry), and one meddling, obstinate owner who undermines the efforts of his far more basketball savvy staffers (James Dolan). Even now, with legitimate star power on the team in Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire, those mismatched stars can’t co-exist; the team does better when one of them is sitting. I guess it’s a good thing that STAT is perennially injured to the point of being uninsurable.
Knowing that my connection with players is imagined and none of these guys gives a damn about how sad they make me, why do I care about them or the franchise? I don’t. (OK, I do still love Tyson Chandler, Iman Shumpert, and Steve Novak, and I can tell by the way they look into the camera that they care deeply for me too...) But seriously, my bond is with fellow fans. I endure because I have an extended family of equally lunatic followers to share the lows and the highs with. (I presume there will be highs someday.) The 2006 Mets resurgence was a glorious time for me and my fellow Amazin’ fans because that equally inept franchise stunk Shea Stadium up for so many years. Maybe it wasn’t as historic as the Boston Red Sox exorcising demons, but that turnaround felt like every godawful failure in the Mets’ futile history had existed to make that moment more euphoric. I never would have enjoyed that had I decided, fuck it, the Yankees are winners and navy blue goes better with outfits anyway. (With all due respect to NYC’s tricolor flag, nobody looks good in an abundance of orange and blue.)
I have no history with the Nets. I’ve seen the old ABA footage of Dr. J skying to the rim, but during my lifetime it has always been New Jersey’s team. I tuned in for games during the early 2000s J-Kidd and K-Mart era, when the Knicks were free-falling, because occasionally I wanted to see basketball played right. But even as I looked on I never claimed them as mine. (Now, all these years and arrests later, I can finally root for Jason Kidd!)
Throwing on that Brooklyn “B” today would be a fraudulent and empty gesture of support. If I did, and the Nets were to win the title this year, I wouldn’t feel that illogical pride and joy that makes grown men cry. I’d feel about as warmed as I do when I see two strangers get engaged. Good for you, now get outta my way. Brooklyn history on the Barclays Center grounds, for me, will always be walking home from school across the train yards and admiring CHINO BYI‘s skill with a spray can.
Part of what bothers me about the ubiquitous, Jay-Z-designed gear rocked by the Nets and their new fans, many of whom have been “Brooklyn” for about five minutes, since moving here from Connecticut, Omaha, and wherever-the-fuck, is that it’s all so deliberate. The clothes are made to be cool on the street, to go well with everything, and to evoke history, as if the Brooklyn Nets were a long established franchise dating back to the days of the Dodgers. Remember when pops used to spring for nickel bleacher seats so we could watch the Nets run that signature Barclays Center hardwood in their black Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars? Of course not, because that shit never happened.
Like I said, I’m aware that I’m a customer, but nothing is less appealing to me as a consumer than marketing executives blatantly targeting me and trying to sell me an identity. From “Hello Brooklyn” billboards off the Manhattan Bridge to Jay-Z headlining a string of BC shows like a Vegas act and sporting his personalized Shawn Carter Nets jersey on stage to whip up sales, the effort that’s being made to claim young kids and turn transplants and older Knicks fans is painfully obvious. I never drank Cristal or wore Evisu because Jigga said anything less was wack, and my identity as a headstrong Brooklynite won’t be threatened by the branding of the borough’s first professional sports team since “Dem Bums” left on a flight to L.A. after the 1957 season. Shifting team allegiance to Brooklyn now is the least Brooklyn, most out-of-towner thing I could do. I don’t need a “B” on my chest to know where I’m from.