SB Nation

David Roth | May 2, 2014

The home team

Two not-very-quiet nights at home with an NBA team that's figuring out what it is, and what it will be

The broker was young, attractive, and late. She arrived, finally, wrapped in a big black column of puffy coat, with an apology and a fumble of keys. This was not so very long ago in the grand scheme of life in Brooklyn or on earth, but it was long enough ago that not all involved had cellular phones. Not so long ago, then, but also prehistoric.

Here's a problem. To tell you any story about the Brooklyn I lived in is to become Grandpa Simpson. Just so many long stories about long walks, various would-you-believe specials and half-remembered had-to-be-there's. Long disquisitions on the pint cans of malt liquor at the bodega -- the Night Flights and Prime Times and Hurricanes that helped me get less out of myself for a couple years than I'd ever previously thought possible -- that cost less than smaller cans of soda. All of it a long time gone, all of it somehow undimmed and high-definition these years later, despite all I did to blot it out unto blackout.

But, in that Brooklyn, if the broker from Craigslist was late to meet you for your scheduled look at an apartment on Fifth Avenue and Dean Street, you stood on the sidewalk in front of El Viejo Yayo Restaurant and shivered and muttered until she got there. Then you accepted the apology and went up the narrow stairs, the linoleum hapless and curling, the winter light thin and weak. The grand tour, then: a short walk around the confines of what was advertised as a Convertible Three Bedroom, which was true in the sense that someone sleeping in the living room would have rendered the apartment's only common space into a bedroom of sorts. The single bathroom was small and harrowing. Everything was somehow more brown than it should've been.

She showed us the roof, then. There was a window that opened onto an expanse of tar paper, and that would be ours. This was the selling point, and not a bad one. The roof looked out on the whole downhill expanse of South Brooklyn, over various bald and shabby backyards -- the odd grill or picnic table in some, about an equal number planted with broken glass and dustings of garbage and the swollen corpses of discarded mattresses. Today, these are almost all the backyards of million-dollar homes. It all stretched into indistinctness further out. There was just Brooklyn out there, under low gray winter skies and as far as I cared to look.

This was it. This was where we wanted to live, if not this particular apartment. Hunched over on that tar paper un-patio, surveying whatever it was I was looking at and considering my future place in it, I did not think to look to my right. There was nothing there but an open hole in the ground beyond Flatbush Avenue with some idle subway trains in it, an empty space in which no one had yet thought to put an arena, or a basketball team. Anyway there were better things to look at, to wonder at and fear and want. There was Brooklyn.

* * *

This is a thing that Nets fans are still learning, but they are learning it.

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It doesn't matter if the visiting team plays its home games in Toronto: there is no good reason to do a "U-S-A! U-S-A!" chant while Deron Williams is shooting critical free throws in the fourth quarter. But if you do it anyway and Deron Williams misses that free throw, there is a sort of unmissable collective lesson there to be learned. You don't do it again. This is a thing that Nets fans are still learning, but they are learning it.

Something like the proper operation of team-issued rally towels would not seem terribly difficult, but it is not necessarily a natural movement for those still figuring out how to cheer for the new team playing in their concrete backyard. The Nets do not play joyous, pyrotechnical basketball, but they're winning games and that is a solid place to start in terms of converting the apostate Knicks fans, polyglot Brooklyn pilgrims, young families and neighborhood partisans that comprise the crowds at Nets games. When Williams steps to the line again, they grant him a faintly rustling quiet.

Williams misses again anyway, because Game 3 of their first round playoff series had that sort of endgame. The team wins anyway, because the Nets are having that sort of season. They are not lovely to watch -- they are a team that backs other teams down, that wins through the repeated impact of Joe Johnson's hammer-on-nail butt-bumps and the undimmed implacability of Paul Pierce's world-historic orneriness. The Nets are not perfect or even terribly close to perfect, and yet there is a scenario -- one that will require a home win in Friday's Game 6, for starters, but which is not out of bounds as this sort of first-round wishcasting goes -- in which they could represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals this year.

It is no slight to the team to note that this feels almost incidental in Barclays Center. The game experience is antiseptic and scrupulously leveraged. Various brands wink and blink and blurt and blunder up throughout the game, presenting things or simply being them. It is as if the Barclays Center was built on a roiling underground lake of Brands, with geysers sometimes blasting logos and jingles up through the hardwood.

The arena was built seemingly with this in mind. The upper level is the MetroPCS Upper Pavilion; event staff will direct you to the Ticketmaster Concourse or ask if you have the appropriate credentials to gain access to the Barclays Suite Level. If you look at the scoreboard during the game, you will see an ad looping infinitely between the scores that reads: COMMITTED TO IMPROVING/DOCUMENT WORK FLOW/CONTROLLING COSTS/MEETING COMPLIANCY. The fourth quarter is presented by something called Let's Yo: A Yogurt Experience.

This is not unique to Brooklyn, of course; it was even more oppressive during the Nets' last years in New Jersey, when the team relied on marketing gimcrackery to wring revenue out of lousy teams playing in mostly empty arenas. But that is sort of the problem. All of this -- the amphetamized, hi-NRG cheerleading routine mash-ups on the PA; the stilt-walkers and Who Wants A T-Shirt Presented By Ticketmaster wheedling; the various rote in-game rituals -- could have arrived in shrink wrap from Phoenix, or Orlando, or any other NBA city.

There is a basketball team at the eye of this swirling brandstorm and under those high-volume dubstep wubs, and the team is pretty good. The rest of it feels unfinished, not yet fully filled in. This isn't an insult, either. It takes time to feel at home.

* * *

So: say I'd nodded off in one of those beige cell-like bedrooms in the apartment above El Viejo Yayo. Say I'd stayed out for 13 years.

I'd have missed my first date with my wife, at a bar back down Fifth Avenue that is closed now. It was a mile's walk from the place I wound up living, and a set by a not-very-good band called The Sick Passengers sent us out and walking. I'd have wondered how the lower Manhattan skyline had changed so much; I would not have been there to see and smell it on that day, to get and stay haunted by that. I would have missed my brief, bright life in Brooklyn, and awakened in a place I'd never have recognized.

I would have walked down those stairs and seen Yayo's, same as it ever was -- chewy charred bistecs, big families wrestling wriggling toddlers -- and nothing else I would have recognized. Across the street I would see a bar that looks like any number of bars in midtown Manhattan, and which would not be named O'Connor's. I would not have had my 30th birthday party at O'Connor's, either, because I would've been asleep in that brown apartment up those stairs.

I would have been asleep while this part of Brooklyn converged on full communion with a set of posh new brand truths -- Portlandian farm-to-table affectations and the new aesthetics and values of what was becoming, slowly, a very expensive place to live. A creepy helix of real estate and local government would turn the neighborhood into something less like what it was and more like so many other wealthy neighborhoods in so many other cities. The former O'Connor's is now a perfectly respectable place called McMahon's Public House, which sells local craft IPAs for $7 a pint; the bar is, appropriately, on the other side of the room.

Here was my whole youth spent caring about this miserable team, coming into miraculous bloom.

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This all might not have meant so much if I'd slept through it. As it was, I nearly did. My Brooklyn years were mostly lost. Not in a stylish or cool sense, either -- the word "hipster" was then a Norman Mailer-ish archaism or a dorkily deep "Seinfeld" reference, and not yet yoked to Brooklyn as a term of half-flattering mockery. At the time, had anyone noticed me, I could have been identified by the more taxonomically precise term "young drunk idiot." I wrote some and consumed more; I went to work and didn't get fired despite eminently deserving it. I was a lousy boyfriend and the author of innumerable bad decisions and some mostly bad short stories, none of which left any permanent marks. I woke up one weekday morning, already late for work, and took a sip of what I assumed was water at my bedside. It was gin and flat tonic. I grew the fuck up, as one does.

I was lucky, in many ways. That the New Jersey Nets were, for the first time in my life, both a very good and very beautiful basketball team was not my greatest stroke of luck, but it felt like the most miraculous. They were not good enough to beat the Lakers or the Spurs in the NBA Finals, but they were good enough to get there. I watched the games and gloried in the shock of it. I was not in New Jersey anymore, but here was my whole youth spent caring about this miserable team, coming into miraculous bloom. I drank my Night Flights and Prime Times on a rescued couch and watched the Nets somehow win and win.

On mornings when I felt like it, I jumped up and grabbed the rusty steel girders overhead at the F train stop, chinned myself up like Kenyon Martin, and came down feeling as if I'd dunked not on someone, but on something, or on various things -- on the idea that New Jersey would always lose and deserve it, that it was a death trap and suicide rap. Nothing was inevitable.

I'd gotten out while I was young, and also I hadn't. The Nets were winning, fiercely and happily; I had this second home and the stupid life I wanted to live. I've never been so triumphantly in New Jersey as I was in Brooklyn. I got on the train and felt like the luckiest of dual citizens. New Jersey was winning; Brooklyn was home. Everything rising, everything converging. Dunks on dunks on dunks. Forever, or for a while.

* * *

On game night, the Casym Steel Orchestra plays under blinking ads for "Walking With Dinosaurs" in front of Barclays, and Canadians wearing actual dinosaur costumes get their pictures taken with one another. The Raptors fans are everywhere; they travel, and some of them live here, and as the Raptors raced out to the big lead they never quite got around to relinquishing in Game 4 a few "Let's Go Raptors" chants blew up around the arena, and weren't quite shouted down. A Toronto transplant I know participated in one; he was answered by people in his section chanting "ma-ple sy-rup" back at him in the same cadence. The fans are learning.

They will be what makes the Nets more than the agglomeration of aligned brands.

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Nets fans do not travel like this. They travel to home games, they walk or they take the train, they stop at one of the many new bars on Fifth Avenue for a beer beforehand. This is happening. Go into Uncle Barry's on a game day, and you will see a man in a C.J. Watson Nets jersey order a beer and a shot. This is already happening. But that is about the size of it. The bars empty some before tip-off, but they were never quite full to begin with.

In time, though, these fans will travel. The kids waving towels and dancing happy muppet-y little kid dances when the camera finds them and puts them on the Jumbotron will grow up with this team, grow into it. They will be what makes the Nets more than the agglomeration of Founding Partners and aligned brands that they can sometimes appear to be.

This is a good thing. This is the best thing, in fact, this is what teams are for. Their cheers will be what drowns out the front office's relentless false-bottomed marketing language. They are the ones who will strip the Nets' talk of the "Brooklyn brand" of its falsifying last word and just make it Brooklyn; the Nets will be for them what the Nets once were for me. They will care too much, they will be stupid about it, they will project themselves onto the team and the team back onto themselves, and that will be happier than it sounds.

They'll make the team theirs, and that will make the team real. When they're ready, they'll baptize all this tacky, craven, too-familiar marketing calculation in their screams, and the whole thing will come up new.

* * *

What I think is that we do not really want things to stay the same. We think we do -- we think we want to have the same life-stuffed days and nights over and over, to enjoy them just as much. But we can love those days and also wish for different ones. There is something in us that wants to grow up and change and go someplace else. There is a thing that needs to leave home, and make another one. What passes, passes. We pass it by on our way someplace else.

There is nothing terribly natural or good about the variously underhanded and high-handed incidences of micro- and macro-scale corruption that brought the Barclays Center into being or brought the Nets to Brooklyn. All of that was terrible, and continues to be -- the slow and predictable revelation of all the various lies told casts a long shadow on the hopeful thing rising at Flatbush and Fifth. It is all business as usual, but that is never a compliment.

But there is nothing more natural or good about the Brooklyn I lived in -- which is gone, gone, gone -- than there is about the one that's there now. The new one is different, but of course it is. I am welcome to miss or mourn the Brooklyn I knew; the people who live there now are too busy living in this new one to care, and that is as it should be.

Anyway, nothing is lost. We carry our own cities around with us. It is strange when we see that they no longer match the cities through which we walk. We will miss what we miss, but that can't be the end of it. And so it isn't. Miss what's gone, and cheer what's coming on, the hope wild and large in our hearts. There is nothing else to do, in Brooklyn or anyplace else.

About the Author

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David Roth is a columnist for SBNation.com and a co-founder and editor of The Classical and a person from New Jersey who lives in New York; he is not the David Roth from Van Halen or magic. He grew up as a fan of the New York Mets and New Jersey Nets, but is comparatively well-adjusted, considering.

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