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Our Taj Mahal to their Mecca - How Barclays has made a name in basketball

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Tonight, Barclays Center will once again host the NBA Draft, for the seventh straight year, part of its slow development as a hoops hotbed. William B. Holley talked exclusively with Brett Yormark about basketball at Barclays.

Calgary Flames v New York Islanders Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

When Barclays Center was being built, the Nets then-coach Avery Johnson predicted the new arena would be seen as the “Taj Mahal” of basketball, a not-so-subtle comparison to an iconic venue across the river.

Now, nine years after Johnson’s comment and seven years after Barclays opened, there’s another subtlety at work. In that short history, the building has made —and is still making— strides to one day be considered hallowed grounds just like the palace in India ... and the “Mecca” at 33rd and 7th in Manhattan.

From high school basketball, to big time college basketball, to the NBA Draft, the Big 3 and of course the Brooklyn Nets — and maybe the New York Liberty, Barclays is pushing its basketball brand hard.

“When you think about basketball in general, starting with high school, then college and the highest level, the NBA, i’m not sure there’s a venue in the country that’s been more committed than we’ve been,” said Brett Yormark, CEO of the Nets and BSE Global, Mikhail Prokhorov’s holding company in an exclusive interview with NetsDaily. “We want to be synonymous with basketball in general.”

It didn’t happen by chance.

“The vision was when we built Barclays Center, we obviously felt that there was some relevant programming/content that made sense for Brooklyn.

“When you look at the history and DNA of the borough, there are certain sports that truly resonate and basketball was obviously at the top of the list. Rich heritage in the borough, we obviously had the vision of bringing the Nets to Brooklyn, but we wanted to offer more than just professional basketball. We just wanted to destinational for basketball in general.”

Indeed, the arena was designed to be “basketball-centric,” sometimes in obvious ways like sightlines and use of natural light, but sometimes in less obvious ways as well. The roof is not that high compared to other arenas. It’s a little closer to the stands and that’s so the noise stays in the arena. It doesn’t get lost up in the ceiling somewhere.

Now, that design has been tested as have the business aspects of the arena and more and more, Barclays Center has become a hub for hoops in the city. On Thursday Barclays Center will play host to the NBA Draft. This will be the seventh consecutive year the NBA’s annual event will take place at the Brooklyn arena, but that is just the beginning of the basketball energy brewing inside the seven-year old facility.

Barclays has already co-hosted, along with Madison Square Garden, the 2015 NBA All-Star Game, but as Yormark explains, his basketball focus is not limited to the league. The Big 3 kicks off its second season on July 14. The arena will offer a slew of college games this season ... and NCAA regional in 2021. Under the “Brooklyn Hoops” moniker there has been quite the emphasis by the Barclays brass to bring college basketball to Brooklyn. Last year, the arena hosted 26 games.

This season, the 2019-20 Barclays Center College Basketball Schedule kicks off with the Legends Classic Nov 25-26, NIT Season Tip-Off Nov 27-29 and Barclays Center Classic Nov 28. Some of the teams you can look forward to seeing include Wisconsin, Penn State, Syracuse, Oklahoma State, 2019 Final Four participant Auburn and the team regarded as having the 2019 #1 recruiting class, Memphis, with their first year Head coach, former NBA All-Star Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway.

“This upcoming season is arguably one of our best,” he said. “We’ve really had incredible influence in the college basketball space in a short seven years.”

At season’s end, there’ll be more college hoops. The Atlantic 10 Conference tournament, which took place in Brooklyn from 2013-16 then returned in 2019, will be held in Brooklyn the next two years, 2020 and 2021. The ACC tournament will return in the coming years as well.

Also in 2021, Brooklyn will experience March Madness. The NCAA tournament will be the site of the NCAA East Regional, with the Sweet Sixteen and Elite Eight rounds being played on Brooklyn’s own unique herringbone-patterned floor (an homage, perhaps, the floor pattern found in post-war Moscow.) This is not Brooklyn’s first time hosting a round of the legendary tournament. The venue’s first NCAA tournament action took place back in 2016 when it hosted first and second rounds.

“There’s a lot of schools that have alumni bases here. Obviously, this is a recruiting hotbed. The New York Tri-State Area but specifically Brooklyn,” he argued.

Moreover, Yormark said he wants the arena to serve as an aspirational tool for youngsters. “We want high school basketball players to play at Barclays Center and we want them to dream a little bit. dreaming about playing college basketball at Barclays Center and maybe one day playing as a professional,” said Yormark.

The Nets has hosted national high school games as well. The Jordan Brand Classic, a premier high school All-Star basketball game, played its annual game every April from 2013-2018 in Brooklyn. D’Angelo Russell made the climb from taking the Brooklyn court as a teenage participant in the 2014 Jordan Brand Classic to calling the Barclays his professional home as the Nets starting point guard the last two seasons. Debuting last year was Danny Green’s in-season “Battle in the Apple” that New York high school teams against top flight schools from across the country.

Barclays has also hosted New York’s PSAL —the Public School Athletic League— championships, both boys’ and girls’ and LIU Basketball as well.

Then, of course, there’s the Nets, with their 41 home dates, preseason and now playoff games. Long mired in the depths of the NBA attendance, things are changing there as well. Although they still finished 30th and last, there were positive signs. Big ones. After averaging a mere 13,000 and change through the early part of the season, the Nets had jumped to 14,407 by the All-Star Break, then took a leap as the playoff dream became reality, After the break, the Nets averaged 16,397 fans, including seven straight sellouts at season’s end and in the playoffs.

“I’m really encouraged,” Yormark told NetsDaily. “The fan base grew this year. we have a very likeable team. The team really fits the makeup of the borough. when you think about the committment, the hard work, the grit, the notion that ‘we go hard.’ It plays out every night and the borough respects that. and they’re proud of it.

“You saw that really get amplified during the playoff games. I said to some of my colleagues, ‘This is a Brooklyn crowd.’it was incredible. The energy, the excitement.”

The excitement is translating into dollars and cents.

“So far, our off season sales to to date we’re experiencing the best off season we’ve ever had in Brooklyn,” Yormark revealed. “And it’s only going to get better. We’ve got the whole summer to sell. People are literally buying into the hope and the vision, the direction and the progress of this team. And it’s very exciting. very exciting.”

Next up for basketball at Barclays? For Nets fans, Yormark promises “new and exciting components” next season. And what about the Liberty, who used to play at Madison Square Garden and are now looking for a permanent home under new owner Joe Tsai, who of course is the Nets minority owner and is expected to take over the NBA club in 2021.

“Obviously, they had a very positive experience vs. the China national team,” said Yormark referring to the May 9 exhibition game that drew 4,115 fans to Barclays. “That’s going to be up to Joe Tsai to determine where they want to play next season. Obviously, there’s been som speculation about playing some dates at Barclays Center but I would defer to Joe Tsai when it comes to the Liberty.

“I don’t think theyre would be any challenges. The Liberty have a nice fan base but that’s going to be up to Joe whether or not he’d like to have the Liberty play at Barclays Center and at that point, we’ll discuss how to make that work.”

Tsai, for his part, told NetsDaily on May 9 that he’d like to “participate” in the ownership of the arena but wouldn’t speculate on what will happen.

“I cannot guarantee playing in Barclays Center because I don’t own the building but we’re looking at all sorts of options to see if we can improve the current situation. I think building that fan base --you’ve got to get people to come to the games.”

And no, Yormark would not engage in comparing Barclays to MSG, saying, “I’m only focused on one building in this city. The market is big enough for the existing venues here toe be successful and my goal is to just grow the pie.”

At the end of the day, supplanting Madison Square Garden with its 160 years of tradition is next to impossible, but in terms of basketball, it’s more than fair to say, Yormark and his boss, Mikhail Prokhorov, have made impressive in-roads.