I walked into the inaugural day for the Big 3 tournament at Barclays Center in July 2017. I just finished up my junior year at St. John’s University. Young, confident kid with a new suit on, but I didn’t exactly know what to expect. After all, it was the first game they ever played in that tournament.
The day went on when the newly acquired Net, D’Angelo Russell walked directly under the baseline and sat down with two family members. It was six days after he had been traded to Brooklyn. People noticed and started whispering under their breath. One thing I remember about the fans at The Big 3 – It wasn’t a big Nets crowd— people were from all over the NBA wearing their different team jerseys.
On a day when former greats, near-greats and not-so-greats from bygone eras gathered to inaugurate the Big 3, there weren’t many current NBA stars on hand. So they got noticed.
“That’s D’Angelo Russell,” I heard one person say from behind me.
Russell’s name was eventually announced on the Jumbotron, his unofficial first welcome to Brooklyn. Some boo’d, some cheered. It turned into a topic of conversation on NBA social media platforms.
I walked by Russell, bent down, introduced myself and spoke with him. You could tell he was a bit timid and it was understandable, given the distrust he might have with media after what he endured in LA.
“I’m excited to get to work,” Russell told me. “It’s all kind of fresh to me, but I’m ready.”
He started to get comfortable, though. He met his newest teammates, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Caris LeVert and Archie Goodwin, and was kind enough to let me snap a few photos.
“I’m all the way up!” Brooklyn’s Fabolous rapped in front of the star-studded Big 3 event. Celebrities of all sorts were courtside. Russell was with his newest teammates, a huge smile on his face. The music was loud, celebrity row was out, and Russell was the talk of basketball town.
I realized after that moment, D’Angelo Russell was the most popular guy in Barclays Center. A natural star for a team that was devoid of them.
No doubt, a foreshadow…
Russell came into Brooklyn with a chip on his shoulder. Days before, Magic Johnson (no longer with L.A.) dissed him on the way out, essentially saying that Russell was not the leader he needed. He said it with Russell’s successor, Lonzo Ball (no longer with L.A.) sitting next to him. It felt unnecessary and unbecoming. Not to mention, the kid he was talking about was a mere 21 years old.
But it sent a message. D’Angelo Russell had to change his rep.
Indeed, it served as fuel to his engine. He told his brother immediately, ‘I can’t wait for a fresh start.’ It was a clean slate for both Russell and the Nets. His next stop was Dyckman Park, where he played a game with teammates Isaiah Whitehead and RHJ. He hit the game-winning bucket that sent the crowd — and all of social media into a frenzy. He was mobbed. He flashed the smile...
He was the most popular basketball player in New York City.
I began to see why D’Angelo Russell was so likable. He was a good kid coming into Brooklyn and had all the right intentions. The cool outfits, tattoos, nicknames and slogans all helped make him unique. But it was the other stuff that mattered.
He understood the Nets had a culture that includes several layers. He bought in.
The Nets are big on monitoring players and their health. They send you a text message every morning asking how your body feels. They test your body on Mondays – particularly areas that might be fatigued. They put a Catapult vest on you, so they have data to monitor. “They even track the color of your piss,” Joe Harris said a few years back.
There’s structure and discipline in Brooklyn. Something D’Angelo needed in order to help his career, something he didn’t have in La-La Land where today it’s still about long-ago legacy.
He came into his first season in New York City with an edge, telling NetsDaily, “I want teams to hate us. We’ve struggled over the last few years in Brooklyn. Teams are used to coming in and taking nights off. I just want to rebuild that and make it a place where people come and say, ‘alright we got the crowd against us. It’s New York.’”
He made it his own while checking his ego at the door when it came to playing and getting better in the gym.
All of it sounded great until he hurt his knee and had to undergo arthroscopic surgery in mid-November, forcing him to miss 34 games. It took the buzz out of DLo’s first season and the Nets won just 28 games. Now, there was buzz about his fragility on top of all the other negatives attached to him.
But he came back, that same chip firmly attached to his shoulder. Season two was going to be his time to shine. It was also his first contract year.
Things didn’t start off so easily.
He kept getting benched late in games for Caris LeVert or Spencer Dinwiddie. Kenny Atkinson didn’t have it out for DLo. He just held him to higher standards – as most good coaches do when they believe in a player and Atkinson did. He saw what Kevin Boyle, his high school coach, and Thad Motta, his college coach at Ohio State, has seen before him.
Then, LeVert went down with an ugly injury and by December 7, the Nets were 8-18, same as their more obviously tanking neighbors across the river. The Nets were underachieving big time at that point. It was either next man up – or join the Knicks in “Tank for Zion.”
Russell became the next man up – or perhaps he was just waiting for his chance. It started with a 29-point night against the Toronto Raptors – a gritty OT victory against the eventual Champions that ended a tortuous losing streak. Behind an offensive tear from Russell, the Nets won seven straight games and 20 of the next 26. Suddenly, they were no longer 8-18 and a tanking candidate, but 28-26 with a chance at the playoffs.
Playoffs?!? After a 28-win season? No way.
Russell finally had his breakthrough season and oh, so many moments as he led the Nets into the playoffs as a six seed with 42 wins. Russell averaged 21 points and seven assists per game – the only player in the Eastern Conference to average 21+ points and 7+ assists per game. He played in 81 games, missing one to rest.
His run was as improbable as the Nets. He was becoming more mature as the season went on. He sought out the big moment. He had his flaws, but he stepped up. He conquered the Lakers with an anger reserved for the jilted when he dropped 22 and 13, hitting the dagger three to put Brooklyn up six. Russell ran to the bench with a look on his face that said it all. Middle finger towards his lower arm, right where they stick needles. Ice in his veins…
He carried the Nets in a 28-point comeback against the Sacramento Kings, dropping 44 on the night with 27 coming in the fourth. The Nets were desperate for a win on a long, brutal road-trip. Had they lost that game, they might never have made the playoffs. The game was late and looked so lost that virtually no one saw it. YES had a 0.0 rating during the fourth. Fans jumped on highlight packages, watched the replay. It was a game for the ages...
It was not just a moment for DLo. It was his moment of truth for DLo, in a season when became the All-Star, the one where proved everybody wrong, the one where he became a proud Brooklyn Net… and the lottery pick they never had.
He became the face of the franchise and young, upcoming and trendy star that Brooklyn appreciated. However, there’s an irony. As the Nets started winning and the stands started filling, they put themselves in a position to attract stars, superstars in fact. Sean Marks and the Nets seized the opportunity. Russell understood that calculus, the timing. It was time for reason over emotion. Where would he fit in Sean Marks new order? If at all!
Russell expressed his desire to stay, saying on more than one occasion that he “loved” the city, “loved” the team. So he waited patiently for the Nets to finally made that decision, to come to terms with Kyrie Irving and ultimately renounce him so he could look for his next third team (or maybe return to his first.) It was like ripping a band-aid off slowly. He wanted to stay, they wanted to keep him… but if you have a chance to pair Irving and Kevin Durant, two of the game’s 10 best players, there’s only one thing you can say: it’s a business.
And so, the story of D’Angelo Russell in a Brooklyn Nets uniform has ended. It was fun, even electrifying but short-lived. One day we’ll all look back and evaluate whether the Nets made the right move, but for now, there’s no analytics, just a bittersweet feeling.
The Nets had been in the gutter for so long. The Nets made the Knicks look functional! When Marks and Atkinson came in, it was a low-pressure, low-expectation rebuild for the franchise. As it turned from that to the next step, things changed. He boosted the Nets and the fanbase and they boosted him. He saved the season, put Brooklyn back on his back, put Brooklyn back on the map. He had “it.”
As his time grew and I had the chance to step back and remember D’Angelo’s transformation from The Big 3 tournament to the final game in Philadelphia, I felt as if I not only watched a player grow, but a person too.
One day, he turned to me – not two years after I met him at the Big 3 tournament. He must have read a tweet I posted on my birthday about my father being sick. He approached me, shook my hand and told me, “I’m praying for your father and your family, for real.”
Needless to say, his character isn’t something that’s now open to question. Nor is his game.
The fanbase rallied behind him as did his teammates. Brooklyn’s metamorphosis -- from wins and losses to its very narrative – was so much about HIM, his rise. Losing him for Kyrie Irving is, as we said, bitterweet but also ironic because he’s a big reason they were even in position to land a player of Irving’s caliber.
Russell may go back to Los Angeles with LeBron James and Anthony Davis. Maybe he’ll go compete for a championship there. Or he’ll join the Minnesota Timberwolves and form a tandem with longtime friend Karl-Anthony Towns. This will be determined.
But no matter what uniform D’Angelo Russell is playing in, he’ll always come back to Barclays Center and be the most popular guy in the gym. That’s something that won’t change in Brooklyn. He was here for a good time, not a long time.
Farewell, DLo ...
On that note — STATE OF THE NETS TIME pic.twitter.com/LoXmgzPOjZ— Anthony Puccio (@APOOCH) April 7, 2019
And good luck!