with all due respect to the Butler Bulldogs, the most incredible run to the NCAA Finals since Larry Bird's Indiana State team came a game away from winning it all in 1979, and the buzzer beater which would have proved once and for all that in Indiana, life imitates art, this bit of basketball mayhem takes place in Brooklyn.
Not the mediocre LIU or god-awful St. Francis programs. They've been afterthoughts since long before Bird went on his magical run, culminating in a showdown against the Magic Man himself. Instead, we're talking about pro ball. Well, at least what the Nets will have you believe is pro ball. For over 6 years the former New York Nets have been trying to become the former New Jersey Nets while attempting a move into the Borough of Kings. This month that step grew much closer.
As most locals know, an arena in Brooklyn and the move of the Nets (playing in New Jersey since the 1978 season) to America's 4th largest city comes with much controversy. To build it, mega-developer, Bruce Ratner, has resorted to eminent domain abuse, the leveling of a small but promising community in Prospect Heights, the paying off of controversial organizations, like what once was ACORN, bait and switch tactics, and funding from Russia's richest oligarch, Mikhail Prokhorov. This while the Nets, a team Ratner purchased on January 21st, 2004, has made headlines for being one of the worst products the NBA has ever seen. Under Ratner they've gone from a surprising title contender in the early 2000s to the butt of jokes from basketball and non-basketball fans alike. They rank amongst the bottom of the NBA in terms of attendance. Amongst the bottom in terms of local cable ratings. Amongst the bottom in merchandise sales. And at they very bottom of fan promos. So poor is their promotional department, that under team CEO, Brett "Bags" Yormark, the Nets actually spent the year promoting stars of other teams. In perhaps the greatest insult ever slapped onto their own fans, Yormark came up with the idea of reversible jersey giveaways. One side featuring a Nets player, the other, featuring a star player from the visiting team. These soon to be Brooklyn Nets are not the legendary Brooklyn Celtics of the 1920s ABL. They're barely the minor league Brooklyn Gothams of the 1940s.
But more on Yormark, the man who united Ratner and Prokhorov, later.
On March 11th 2010, the Nets were still on pace to finish the season with the absolute worst record in NBA history. Even so they were welcomed like world beaters by local elites (made up mostly of Manhattanites) during the official groundbreaking to their 675 million dollar arena. An arena, which as the late Red Dutton would tell you, has been 68 years in the making. Ratner bought his club with a Dutton-like promise of moving them to Brooklyn. That in itself seemed like a wise move. But Ratner wasn't bringing them to an open area. He wasn't interested in the vacant, city owned lots west of MCU Park on Coney Island. Instead, Ratner (who back in the 1990s was supposed to build the Sportsplex Arena where MCU now stands) wanted his arena across the street from his Atlantic Center and Terminal Malls in Prospect Heights. That too, within the city's third biggest transit hub, seemed like a wise move.
Except that to build across the street from his mall complex, Ratner would have to build over people's homes. So as those city owned lots on Coney Island remain vacant (well, until the city sells them to other developers for the creation of high rise luxury condos) Ratner submerged himself in a six year struggle to take land from local residents. After epic legal hurdles, after fights in the courts of law and of public opinion, Ratner finally made good on his Brooklyn promise. His team (well, until Mikhail Prokhorov gains approval from the rest of the league to buy them) warts and all, is Brooklyn bound. Prokhorov was absent from the champagne and lobster gala, but Daniel Goldstein was there. Ratner's long time nemesis, leading hundreds of protestors outside the fenced off and police guarded tents and cameras, could not be missed.
Mocking Ratner's group with chants of "Worst Team Ever!" Goldstein took a final stand in his battle against eminent domain abuse. As Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his cronies sipped cocktails steps from Goldstein's soon to be demolished building, the biggest thorn to Ratner's side reminded those within earshot of the less than virtuous manner that the developer has resurrected Brooklyn's big league dreams. Goldstein pointed to the Independent Budget Office of NYC findings which show that the city and state will stand to lose 219 million dollars over the next 30 years on Ratner's arena.
Whether the city loses or gains money off the 22 acre mini-city (the real motive behind Ratner's land grab has not been hoops but instead condos and office space) planned around the arena is still up for debate. That's because that even after years of proposals, details on other aspects of the project are all still vague.
Promises of an arena rooftop beer garden and public park space have already been scrapped. Payments to the MTA for the bulk of the land, most of it train yards, have already been deferred. Little is known about how much will still be used for affordable housing, as was once promised. For now, only an arena is being built. One which even some Ratner supporters have admitted was only used to gain public and political support for the rest of the development. In an ironic twist, Prokhorov has agreed to buy the Nets with the intent of also getting his hands on some of Ratner's mystery development.
Of course any local who has walked through Ratner's previous developments (from MetroTech in Downtown Brooklyn, to the aforementioned mall complex) has reason for concern. While Ratner should be applauded for bringing office space and supersized retail to the Borough of Kings, both areas are completely devoid of any character that Brooklyn is (in)famous for. His buildings have the charm of a DMV center. Not surprising, the DMV is one of Ratner's biggest tenants. In what can only be a mere coincidence, Ratner has been using public money on money losers and then has been bailed out of these money losers by renting to public agencies, like the DMV. "Happy accidents?"
The question then is what's best for Brooklyn? The dreariest mall ever, or no mall at all? The worst team ever, or no team at all? If you're losing your home as Daniel Goldstein is, the answer is obvious. Legal options exhausted, Goldstein waits for an eviction date. Until then, his public protests continue. Even Goldstein, ironically a Nets fan, can tell you however that by the time his living room is replaced with a backboard, the team should be vastly improved. In what truly is a happy accident, Ratner ran out of money to pay his star players two years ago. Out went Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson, and later Vince Carter, in came prospects, draft picks, and tons of salary cap space. To be exact, even after hitting Davy Jones' Locker, the Nets already have a fairly decent young core featuring Brook Lopez and Devin Harris. They also have 9 draft picks over the next 3 years, enough cap space to sign several players from what is considered one of the most talented free agent crops (featuring LeBron James) in NBA history, and have put themselves in a fortuitous economic situation just as a free spending multi-multi-billionaire looks to take the Nets off Ratner's hands.
The rub is that this incoming owner is a Russian oligarch famous for being karate kicking, JetSki jumping, Kalashnikov brandishing, stripper loving, party boy with deep ties to the Kremlin. Minus the fact that he is worth 17 BILLION dollars and had a well publicized run-in with French authorities at a resort in the Alps, the NBA knows little about Prokhorov. In turn, even while standing at 6'7'' and having already owned CSKA Moscow, one of Russia's most prolific basketball teams, Proky knows little about the NBA.
Once The Association approves the sale, how will Mikhail Prokhorov spend his billions? Will he allow team President Rod Thorn (the man who built the Nets in the early 2000s) to run the team as he see fits? Or will Prokhorov fill upper management with his Russian friends? Will Prokhorov use salary cap space to sign the best talent available, or will he reserve a few spots for unknown Russian players? Will Prokhorov stick around for the long haul, or will he JetSki off to some other party spot once he gets bored? No one knows what the future has in store. What we do know is that the Nets are coming to Brooklyn. What we also know is that its taken Brooklyn decades to return to the big leagues. In a way, its taken the Nets almost as long.
In what, coming from an NBA CEO, can only be described as surreal, just a few days after the groundbreaking, Yormark actually went into the stands to verbally attack a fan who had been wearing a bag over his head. Fans of piss poor teams have been wearing bags over their heads since the 1980 New Orleans Aints dreadful 1-15 season. Perhaps completely oblivious of the long standing tradition (which for Brett would not be a surprise) or unaware that other Net fans had been wearing bags all season long, the confrontation started with Yormark actually asking the fan why he had a bag on. The fan, who actually roots for the Knicks, laughed "because they're so good!"
Enraged, Yormark went on a tirade. Maybe the sales "guru" would have been happier with a reversible bag?
Either way, the story has a happy ending. Yormark apologized for his indiscretion, took the fan out for lunch and even offered a tote bags for paper bags giveaway at the next home game. The story of the Nets season had a happy ending as well. Playing less crappy down the stretch, the team won enough games to not finish with the worst recored ever. Unfortunately (?) no one remembers second or third worst.
Either way, we'll see where the second worst team of all time goes next in what promises to be an eventful few months. Between Proky's approval into the NBA, Ratner's final showdown with Goldstein, the upcoming NBA lottery, and free agency, the Nets, still in the running for second worst team of all time (and an organization which has also been the region's second team since their inception for the 1968 season) will be in the back pages of local tabloids for months to come. As construction over the Atlantic Yards begins, they'll also get space in future BrooklynAtlantic.com rants as well.*