“This is our home. This is. OUR HOME.”
Those were the words of Kyrie Irving, after the Nets defeated the Knicks 113-109 in their first meeting of the season on Friday night.
In terms of the standings, the Nets improved to 1-1 on the young season. But in terms of growing a fanbase and building something lasting in Brooklyn, this game meant so much more than that.
Brooklyn is home to over 2.6 million people. Were it to separate itself from the other four boroughs, it would be the nation’s fourth largest city, behind the remainder of New York City, Los Angeles, and (just barely) Chicago.
That population, size, and just being in New York, contributed to the decision to move the Nets to Brooklyn. However, before this year, the Nets struggled to earn a foothold in the city, in terms of fanbase. A variety of factors contributed to this.
The first iteration of Brooklyn Nets was led by a player for whom the Nets had to mortgage their future, who declined substantially not long after arrival, and who never truly embraced Brooklyn. After he and the team around him did not meet expectations, the Nets tried desperately at building an instant winner, only to fail miserably and experience a series of mediocre —or worse— seasons before surprising last year.
Enter Kyrie. He has embraced Brooklyn, as a borough. Couple that with his immense talent, and the Nets, through just two games, are (finally) starting to earn their way into the hearts of Brooklynites.
He’s mingled with fans at the Nike House of Hoops and at a Brooklyn bar.
Him and his family even showed up to McMahons for drinks after the Minnesota game. I love this guy pic.twitter.com/wHLRv9HSBo— Bobby Moriarty (48-25) (@bogeyingbob) October 27, 2019
Brooklyn is tough and gritty. But If you love the borough’s people, the people will love you in return. Sure, residents can keep to themselves, go about their day, and not talk to one another on the subway. But Brooklyn is also a place known for large block parties, where neighbors gather in the streets, come together, and celebrate being a community.
Embrace Brooklyn, and Brooklyn will embrace you.
Kyrie has embraced Brooklyn, and some. With all the leverage in the world, with thirty options for where to play next season - he chose Brooklyn. It was “always in the cards,” as he posted on Instagram. He enthusiastically mused at Media Day about growing up as a Nets fan. It is crystal clear - this is where he wants to be.
As a result, Brooklyn, since June 30, has prepared to embrace him. And now that he has played two games in front of the borough, the basketball playing side of the borough has rallied behind him ... awestruck.
Brooklyn is a borough of basketball players, hoopers ... and their fans. Each neighborhood has its own public park and basketball court. Chris Mullin went from Midwood to the Hall of Fame. Billy Cunningham’s road to Springfield began in Flatbush, Connie Hawkins’ in Bed-Stuy. Stephon Marbury, Lance Stephenson, and Isaiah Whitehead all came out of Coney Island. Great basketball captivates this borough. And nothing captivates quite like a ball handling maestro, who can cross you over, break your ankles, and split a double team.
Kyrie’s game is breathtaking. Through two games, his presence has bred a massive shift in basketball relevance for Brooklyn and the Nets. Two games, two sellouts (atop the seven straight to finish last year.) Local TV ratings surging, with Opening Night attracting 86,000 viewers at its peak, two and a half times what YES averaged last season.
As for the media? The Nets made the back page after his fifty point outburst, before facing the Knicks, and beating them. Coverage of the Knicks, it’s now fair to say, is seen through the prism of the Nets. What they didn’t get, we have.
As for fan support and the crowd? The fanbase isn’t just mathematically larger. It feels larger as well. During previous renditions of Nets-Knicks battles at Barclays Center, it always felt like Knicks fans dominated the arena.
On Friday night? Sure, Knicks fans were present, and made themselves heard. But the crowd on Friday was much more pro Nets than at any point in the recent past, perhaps since the first faceoff at Barclays in October 2016. According to Evan Roberts, the crowd, live, felt like 65% Nets fans, up from 50% in Nets-Knicks tussles last year.
It’s been more than just a numbers game. It’s been fun, exciting. The moments in Section 114, home of the Brooklyn Brigade, have been non-stop, from Sean Marks personally delivering 12-packs of Modelo on Opening Night to a series of chants led by “You’re just jealous” and “We got Kyrie ... You got Dolan!” on Friday.
Players felt it after the game. As Joe Harris said after the Nets win, the fanbase “held their own tonight.”
That is the Kyrie effect in motion. In a NBA driven by superstars, a player like Kyrie opened the door for the Nets to grow their fanbase, become a New York staple.
Developing a large fan base of the Knicks’ size, or close, will take time. But Kyrie’s talent, and his love for the borough of Brooklyn —and the Nets. can tap into the heart of Brooklynites.
They may live in New York, but Brooklynites have an identity apart from the city at large. As Jay-Z rapped, “I’m a BROOKLYN boy, I might take some getting used to.” He didn’t say “New York boy.” Many Brooklynites see themselves as being from Brooklyn, first. Not being from “The City.” That’s Manhattan!
Kyrie’s love for “our home” taps into that Brooklyn identity of Brooklyn first, New York second. Marry that with Brooklyn’s affinity for basketball, and the Nets, through Kyrie’s electricity, give over two million borough residents the opportunity for something special – a special basketball team they can have —- all.to.themselves.
Kids, both boys and girls, will imitate his moves in the park or try to. And buy his sneakers and his jersey. Parents will support their kids and join the cause. Transplants and immigrants arriving in Brooklyn’s melting pot will have every reason to join the party. As a Brooklynite, the Kyrie experience is all yours, not shared. Why take the train to the Garden to watch incompetence? Leave that to Manhattan.
None of this will, or can, happen overnight. Fans do not take to switching allegiances lightly. Some do not take to it at all. On Friday night, amidst a sea of chanting and rollicking black-and-white, a single (and very large figure) dressed in orange-and-blue screamed obscenities and shouted, “Go back to Jersey!” He seemed frustrated.
Earning the allegiance of younger fans as they form their cultural identities, and seeing them pass the legacy on down, will take years. Decades, even.
But the process is now in motion. And it is accelerating because of Kyrie.
He’s a Brooklyn boy. It might take some getting used to. And when Kevin Durant returns? As one might say if one was from Brooklyn ... Fuhgeddaboudit.