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Making the Move: How the Nets will bring basketball back to the Island

The Long Island Nets will open up Nassau Coliseum to fans in Nassau and Suffolk next month. It will mark the return of pro basketball after 40 years. And Alton Byrd is in charge of the big move.

Long Island Nets

Alton Byrd loves to tick off the names of San Antonio Spurs players who spent time in the D-League.

“...Patty Mills, played in the D-League. Danny Green, played in the D-League. Davis Bertans, played in the D-League...

“Nine players on the Spurs roster played in the D-League. That's nine out of 15!” He adds with emphasis.

Byrd, the Vice President for Business Operations at the Long Island Nets, is selling the NBA’s minor league. It's his job and it's a big one. His team is moving from temporary quarters at Barclays Center, where few games were open to the public, to the newly renovated Nassau Coliseum or as its officially known, NYCB Live.

The young Nets will play at least 25 dates in Uniondale next season, 24 regular season and a preseason contest with the Westchester Knicks, starting in mid-November. This year, fans will be permitted, actually encouraged, to attend. The arena can hold 13,500 for basketball and “curtaining technology” will give the Long Island club the option of creating a smaller venue of 5,600 seats.

Selling the arena should be easy. There is no more modern, more fan-friendly arena in the D-League. A lot of D-League games are played in small local arenas, on college campuses.

But what about the on-court product? How do you market a team whose best players, whose stars, are waiting to leave for bigger arenas and bigger paychecks? Byrd is looking at two ways to do it: selling basketball to Long Island’s knowledgeable fans and selling the Nets brand, both Long Island and Brooklyn, to the larger community. Get them to sample and hopefully become fans.

Byrd says the new CBA with its two-way players will help attract fans. Under the agreement, NBA teams can add D-League players to their roster, so-called “two-way players.”

“Those two-way players are not going to be your non-descript, non-noticeable players. There’s going to be NBA players. Who that’s going to be down to Sean (Marks) and Trajan (Langdon) and how they select their players. I gotta believe that if we have two NBA-caliber players who are going to be with us for the majority of the year, that will help us.

“We will still have assignees (players assigned to Long Island by the Nets) and I think if you look at it, the difference between this coming season and last season, those two-way players make a difference. If we have two great players, so do the other 25 teams in the D-League. So now, we’re starting to move to recognizable guys who are playing the D-League that people do know, that people will come to see.

“So if you look at the make-up of our team, we could have two two-way players, assignees and a (second round) pick, now you’ve got five players who are for all intents and purposes are NBA players. So the quality is going to go increase. I thought last year was the highest level of play they’ve ever had ... 92 assignees,

“Those extra 52 jobs aren’t going to be the guys who are off-the-street guys. They will be former NBA players looking to get back into the league or guys that are future NBA players and you know, the two-way players, you could end up with a guy from North Carolina and a guy from Duke.”

Byrd notes that beyond the two-way players and the assignees, second round picks can be directly signed to D-League deals without the NBA team losing their rights. And as always, the D-League rights of the last three players cut in training camp go directly to the affiliate.

Fans on Long Island should recognize a lot of names on the roster, Byrd hopes

“The good fortune we do have is we’re in a very positive, active basketball community, a very knowledgeable basketball community,” noted Byrd. Another piece of good fortune is that Sean Marks is in charge. His first job with the Spurs was a GM of the Austin Spurs, San Antonio’s D-League affiliate.

But as minor league baseball executives have known for decades, selling a team is often about connecting with a community, fun promotions, not just selling stars.

“What’s as important or more important is how we impact people in the community year-round,” said Byrd. The Nets will use lure of basketball on Long Island to establish “community platforms”, for education, health and wellness, women’s and veterans’ issues.

“Basketball is still the No. 1 sport on Long Island. It may not be that way in terms of fan passion, but it’s certainly that way in terms of kids playing basketball, girls and boys, in both high school and college,” argues Byrd, whose last job was running the Atlanta Dream of the WNBA.

The Long Island team would like to add that fan passion. He’s already seen some of it.

“It’s been a lot of happiness and joy and ‘we’re really glad to see you all here.‘ They’re happy to see NBA caliber players,” he said of the initial reaction to the Nets return to the arena where they won the 1974 and 1976 ABA championships.

The team is marketing that heritage across the Island and may try to bring in a player or two from that era to help make the connection stronger.

“It’s been 40 years since a professional basketball team that played in Long Island... Having an NBA franchise back on Long Island.”

The team will unveil a marketing plan in the next 30 days that no doubt will include TV and radio, as well as community groups. Already, the team has started a slow roll-out, sponsoring more than 60 different community events since the team was established last year, from chamber of commerce events to soup kitchens to fundraisers for leukemia and Crohn’s disease. Players and business staff are represented at each. And there’s a Long Island Nets table at every Nassau Coliseum concert or event.

It’s been noticed, says Byrd. “So far, we’eve had real connectivity in small and medium sized business. I think there’s a curious nature.”

Although ticket prices haven’t revealed yet, Byrd says that his club hopes to provide “affordable” entertainment to “people who are underserved.” Community organizations will be offered group plans, whether it’s a school or VFW hall.

The first big community event, an open house, takes place next month. “June 17 is our first fan festival, It’s sorta like, ‘come and meet the Long Island Nets, come and meet the arena, come and see what we’re going to be doing, what a game experience will be like. ‘“

The kids dance team will be unveiled a few days later and Byrd says they’re thinking about a mascot and a regular dance team, maybe even bring back players from the ABA championship teams to emphasize the heritage ... and highlight the Long Island connection of Kenny Atkinson who’s from Northport.

“I think that’s Kenny’s call. I suspect that given his schedule we’d love to have him involved. We trust that when Kenny he has the time, he’ll want to be involved.”

The Nets are also looking at Long Island locations for the team’s training facility.

“We’re working on making sure we have the right practice facility,” said Byrd. “We will practice on Long Island. and we’re still working on where we practice, the right facility that our player performance team is comfortable, that our head coach and Trajan and Sean are comfortable with. Within next 45 days, we will have something we can share with you.”

Already, team offices have been set up at the Coliseum.

The Brooklyn Nets would also like the D-League affiliate to drive Long Island fans to Barclays. Nassau and Suffolk counties have been Knick bastions for decades, at least since the New York Nets became the New Jersey Nets in 1977.

“That’s always been the hope,” says Byrd. “It’s kind been the mantra of Brooklyn Sports and Entertainment: We hope is that they like us, and we will play a similar style and our hope is that our in-game experience will be similar.

“We have a chance to present the Nets brand, the Nets brand of basketball, to a market that hasn’t had professional basketball since the 1970’s.”

Bottom line for both, win or lose, he says, is “did we put on a great show for families, for kids, for people who really want to understand basketball.”

Byrd also would like to see players on the roster from Long Island, Brooklyn and Queens, local talent. Forty years ago, if there had been a Long Island Nets, Byrd might have been part of it. One of the top point guards in the country at Columbia in the late 1970’s, the 5’8” Byrd wound up overseas, playing and coaching for nearly two decades, mostly in England, gaining British citizenship in the process.

From a business aspect, the D-League operation is not so much about profit and loss, but trial and error. Mikhail Prokhorov will have to pick up the cost of the team’s operations. No one is talking about how much of a financial loss he will take, at least in the early years, but D-League teams have been known to lose seven figures.

“Our work will be to insure that as best we can, we balance the books but that takes time,” said Byrd, admitting, “I don’t know if making a profit is possible.”

One way to reduce those losses is to get a team sponsor which Byrd jokes takes up only “nine hours a day ... We want someone who will align with our values or community, of education.” He expects finding that sponsor will be easier once the games begin and small and medium businesses on Long Island see how the community responds.

The Nets no doubt are ahead of the game at the D-League level. They play in New York, in a renovated arena that if a little bigger would be NBA quality. And they have a front office and ownership willing to commit to the long haul. The question now as they make the move is will they be an Off-Broadway hit?