The Nets wouldn't be headed to Brooklyn without a decision 16 years ago that paved the way.
Until 1996, the Knicks controlled the territorial rights to Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island. Then, the Nets ownership, known at the Secaucus Seven, saw an opportunity. The Knicks were changing hands and needed the Nets approval, so the team wrung a concession from their rivals: an end to the Knick's territorial monopoly in the city. From that point on, the Nets could move into New York and the Knicks couldn't stop them.
It led to new opportunities for the Nets, including the team's sale, which years later led to a second sale and ultimately the move. Michael Rowe was CEO of the Nets back then. He recently answered our questions about how the Nets "stole" Brooklyn from the Knicks. Who needed the Nets vote on the Board of Governors? The Dolans.
The Art of the Deal, 1990s Nets-Knicks chapter - John Brennan - Meadowlands Matters
In 1996, the New Jersey Nets had just turned down an offer to sell the team to the late John Mc Mullen, owner of the NJ Devils, and instead the Nets were turning their interests towards maximizing their opportunities for a possible sale/relocation.
At the same time, the lease to play in the Meadowlands was re-negotiated to give the team flexibility to move and concurrently, the arrangement with Sportschannel, [a Dolan-owned entity] who had local broadcast rights for New Jersey Nets games at the time, was re-negotiated to allow the Nets to end the agreement without the broadcaster having a right to "match"..something that would prove invaluable if/when the Nets sought other broadcast opportunities.
While all this was going on, an [NBA] ownership vote affecting the Knicks required that the Knicks receive the Nets approval and, keeping in line with our Ownership’s strategic plans, we sought to have the territorial restrictions that the Knicks had over the Nets totally eliminated. We were receiving strong interest from the NY Islanders ownership about relocating to Nassau [County on Long Island], but such a move would have surely been blocked by the Knicks under the old provisions.
I met with [MSG CEO] Dave Checketts at the Garden. We hashed through the issue and the League approved the revision. David Stern was very supportive of the change.
In essence, the clause was designed to aid a sale, or move to Nassau Coliseum, not Manhattan or Brooklyn ( although we did have some brief discussions with Garden about moving into their building…ala Staples Center teams –Clippers, Lakers and Kings). So, the NY/NY Rivalry almost happened back in that 1996 timeframe (actually, a few years later, we had a serious offer from Islanders to sell the team and move it to Nassau in 1998).
But the real "Gem" of the above accomplishments was that when our new ownership group [Raymond Chambers, Lewis Katz et al] purchased the Team in 1998 there was NO restrictions on where to move, NO restrictions on our cable rights and NO mandate for the Nets to remain in the Meadowlands. These conditions created a perfect storm to form the Yankee Nets Organization and the YES Network.
And the rest, as they say, is history. In 2004, Chambers and Lewis, after failing to get a Nets arena built in Newark, sold the team to Bruce Ratner who wanted the team in Brooklyn. There's no way the Dolans would have approved it if they could have stopped it. But because of their (short-sighted?) decision in 1996, they've had to sit by and watch.