In 1957, the adored Brooklyn Dodgers, the lovable bums and archrivals of the powerful New York Yankees, left for Los Angeles’s sunny shores. Brooklyn’s only sports team was gone, and in many ways so was a central part of its identity. In the years leading up to the move, Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley proposed building a new stadium to keep the team at home. The new facility would have been at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues, but Robert Moses, the legendary and controversial civic planner, wanted the team to move to Flushing Meadows in Queens, where the Mets currently play. O’Malley decided he would rather be in Los Angeles.
It took more than 50 years, but Brooklyn has a team again. Since 2012, the NBA’s Nets franchise has played directly across the street from O’Malley’s proposed stadium site. Their presence has helped revitalize the borough.
In the second half of the twentieth century, Brooklyn’s identity was murky. When it did pop up in popular culture—in Welcome Back Kotter, Saturday Night Fever, or Do the Right Thing—it was as a dangerous working-class world of racial tension and tough-guy accents. But during Rudy Giuliani’s first term as mayor in the 1990s, things began to change. Vigorous policing and zoning policies made many Manhattan neighborhoods more desirable, and thus more expensive, than they had been in decades. The city’s creative class began looking across the East River to Brooklyn.
But if Giuliani deserves credit for setting the transformation of Brooklyn in motion, it was his successor, Michael Bloomberg, who cemented the borough’s new identity as a cultural, creative, and even sports success story. As Bloomberg himself put it, “Not long ago . . . the idea of a big league sports team coming to Brooklyn was considered little more than a pipe dream.” He was right, and he deserves enormous credit for making that pipe dream a reality.
The crowd at a Nets game is diverse, much like the population of Brooklyn itself. Mustachioed hipsters and Orthodox Jews mingle freely. But many fans seem to buy tickets not out of devotion to the team but because pro basketball is a new thing in Brooklyn. During last season’s playoff series with the Toronto Raptors, commentators noted the plentiful and loud Raptors fans both inside and outside their Air Canada Center and the quiet, sometimes even confused Nets fans at the Barclays. This is understandable, though. The Nets are still new in the neighborhood. Anyone who grew up a serious hoops fan in New York City, Brooklyn included, is a Knicks fan—with the scars to prove it. No lifelong Knicks fans in Brooklyn would suddenly abandon their team for the Nets.
But there is hope for the future, and Nets fans caught a possible glimpse of it last March, during a late-season game against the Raptors. The score was tight. With seconds remaining, future Hall of Famer Paul Pierce hit a three-point shot to secure the win. The Barclays crowd went mad as never before. Pierce slapped hands with courtside fans. “It was unbelievable, man,” he said after the game. “Now we know you Brooklyn fans. You can’t go below that anymore. That’s the expectation.”
By and large, the Brooklyn Nets brand has been a winner even while the team and its fans have struggled. According to ESPN, in the year before their move to Brooklyn, the Nets ranked 27th among NBA teams in merchandise sales. Last season, they ranked 5th. This surge in popularity is in part related to the borough’s rising fortunes—these days, everybody seems eager to buy anything that says Brooklyn on it. But judging from the ubiquity of black and white hats, jerseys, and jackets on the streets of Brooklyn, many of those sales were local. The Nets fan may still have a low basketball IQ—he may not understand, say, the defensive three-second violation—but when the crowd starts chanting “Broooooooklyn, Broooooooklyn,” he is genuinely proud.
Like dogs and their owners, sports teams and their fans come to resemble one another—the flashy Los Angeles Lakers, the blue-collar Pittsburgh Steelers, the obnoxious and hard-hitting Philadelphia Flyers, to name a few. As the Nets fan emerges, a few groups promise to flock to the team and frame its image. They include:
Hip-hop Fans: Music mogul and rap star Jay Z originally had a small ownership stake in the franchise. His song “Brooklyn We Go Hard” is played before every home game and features the line, “When I bring the Nets I’m the black Branch Rickey,” a reference to the Dodgers general manager who signed Jackie Robinson. Even the new black uniforms seemed to be an attempt to mirror the relationship between the Los Angeles Raiders and the emerging West Coast rap scene of the early 1990s.
Immigrants: The team’s current owner is Russian billionaire Sergey Prokhorov, and he seems to have an affinity for picking up Russian and Eastern European players who appeal to the vast number of Brooklyn immigrants from those countries. Much to the consternation of NBA announcers everywhere, Bojan Bogdanovic, Mirza Teletovic, Sergey Karasev, and Andrei Kirilenko have all seen significant court time so far this season.
American Transplants: Brooklyn is full of transplants from other American cities who find themselves far from the teams they grew up with. For many, the Nets are an acceptable team to root for in part because their franchise history isn’t very good. The Nets have never been anybody’s rival; they have never been “the hated Nets.” While most native New Yorkers who love basketball will stick with the Knicks, these transplants can be seduced by the Nets’ underdog status, which might come to resemble that of the Dodgers, who always stood in the shadow of the “Damn Yankees.”
The Kids: I grew up in Philadelphia as a Sixers fan. I started rooting for the Nets, in part, so that I could root for a local team along with my son. For his generation of children growing up in Brooklyn, the Nets will always be their local basketball team. And many will wind up lifelong, diehard fans, especially if the floundering Knicks continue to be the most disappointing team in the NBA for a few more years.
Decades after that dark day when O’Malley took the Dodgers away, Brooklyn is back. No longer just the borough of homes and churches, it has become a center for style, fashion, art, and music. The Brooklyn renaissance is a bright spot in the country’s recent history of urban decay. Other NBA fans may mock us, but there’s finally a team at Atlantic and Flatbush, and it’s ours.