It’s hard to know where to begin in analyzing the Neil Best column headlined, “Nets shouldn’t be the team to break New York’s pro title drought.” The veteran Newsday writer’s lead was even more telling of his feelings, “I do not want the Nets to win the NBA championship. Is it OK to say that out loud? I suppose I just did.”
Perhaps the easiest way would be to consign it to the “whatever” bin, a columnist looking for a way to get readership, whether in the paper or in online clicks. His rationale seems to fall into two categories, that the Nets are not “homegrown” like the Yankees or Mets or Islanders. The other piece, as we’ve heard elsewhere, is that the Nets are ruining things with their ability to sign or trade for some of the best basketball players to ever put on a uniform.
Here’s the crux of the argument.
Would seeing Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and James Harden lift the trophy at Barclays Center — or maybe in Salt Lake City — be as satisfying as watching a homegrown veteran such as Josh Bailey, Aaron Judge or Jacob deGrom do it? Um, no.
Sure, other teams have key players who arrived from elsewhere via free agency or trades, but let’s be real: The Nets are a bizarre amalgam of high-maintenance contracts and high-maintenance personalities.
No, let’s not consign it. Let’s parse it out. Where to begin? The three players from the Isles, Yanks and Mets he cites were indeed drafted by local teams and developed over the years. Home “developed,” sure. Home-grown? The three grew up in Clarington, Ontario; Linden, California; and Ormond Beach, Florida. Did any of them grow up as fans of the teams they currently play for? There’s no evidence of that. Judge was a avid Giants fan.
Kyrie Irving, on the other hand, grew up in public housing in the Bronx and in a leafy Jersey suburbs after being born in Australia where he father played ball. There’s plenty of evidence that he was an avid Nets fan growing up. Jason Kidd was his model. Does that count? And let’s not forget the hundreds of thousands of dollars Irving has donated to relief efforts in and around the city, distributing food himself in some cases. Does that count? Or is Irving too radical, too controversial (unlike Bailey, Judge and DeGrom) to be praised for what he’s done?
More than that, we’d suggest the Nets players are New York, young people who decided to come to the city to test themselves against the best. Frank Sinatra’s lyric about making it in New York isn’t a throwaway line. It’s borne out in the history of the city, its fabric. New York City is all about ambition or a desire to be free from whatever bonds that they felt constrained them elsewhere.
Roughly half of New York’s eight million souls came from that great elsewhere; 40 percent of them were born overseas. Those are facts. Why deny Kevin Durant or James Harden (or Blake Griffin or LaMarcus Aldridge) a mutual love for the city just because they weren’t born here or through the luck of a draft lottery weren’t originally chosen to play here? Are they any different from someone who drives some piece of junk from Texas to New York hoping for a job they think will make them happier? Sure they were more successful to begin with but that’s also true of the lawyers, doctors, hedge fund managers ... or dare we say it, writers who arrive in New York with bigger dreams? Let’s not forget that the Nets encourage their players, coaches and staff to live in Brooklyn and almost all do.
Sean Marks will tell you that he wouldn’t have taken a similar GM job (meaning a rebuild with no stars, no picks) anywhere else but New York. He understood the city would be attractive not just to players, but to executives, coaches and staff. He wanted to recruit kids from the Ivy’s, NYU, etc.
Moreover, the purity Best ascribes to the Islanders, Yankees and Mets is not grounded in fact. Successful, aka championship, teams use everything they can to build a winner — the draft, trades, free agent signings, etc. — plus the creation of a culture to sustain things. Good for them that they scouted and developed kids into stars, even superstars, but it’s just a tiny bit ironic to publish a story about the glories of home grown talent the same week the Mets made a native of Caguas, Puerto Rico, the richest player in pro sports history. Steve Cohen stole him from Cleveland, for God’s sake.
Best concedes that does indeed happen with teams other than the Nets but finds their narrative “clunky.”
Then, there’s that history thing. Did Best root for the Yankees of the 1970’s who George Steinbrenner cobbled together, a group of eclectic personalities from all over baseball that bring titles to New York? Of course, he did. He’s a New Yorker of a certain age. The Yankees were hated too and for the same reason the Nets are now seen as villains. Steinbrenner was buying championships! Now, it’s Joe Tsai!
Which brings us to the second point, laid out more implicitly, that the Nets are out there signing this superstar or that, trading for another, signing still more at bargain basement rates. Ruining the game, say the critics! Like Steinbrenner’s Yankees and now Steve Cohen’s Mets, I guess.
Really though, it’s very anti-New York line of thinking. It ignores the high degree of competency required to get things done in in the most dynamic city in the world. The Nets did nothing illegal, as Steve Nash said last week. Sean Marks et al took advantage of what they had —a New York address and deep-pocketed owners— and built an environment that’s attractive to players: medical and performance teams second to none, a family friendly environment and practice facilities the envy of the NBA. Players talked, a reputation grew. He won the day.
The other night we wrote this in a tweet: “I hear owners groan and grimace about buyouts and read of various proposed ‘fixes.’ Can anyone imagine the NBPA, which is about player empowerment and mobility, agreeing to such limits? And any change would have to be approved by the union. Owners should get better GMs.”
One of the first to “like” the tweet was Tsai, the Nets owner. He gets it. It’s about New York competency, New York dynamism. (Although Taiwanese by birth, Canadian by citizenship and Chinese by heritage, Tsai was educated in the New York area, five years at Lawrenceville School outside Princeton, eight years at Yale and Yale Law. He also met and married his wife, co-owner Clara Wu Tsai, in Manhattan.)
There’s a few other fallacies in the column, like the Knicks’ new talking point that the Nets are a bigger story nationally than locally, which is based on squat, and that these “vagabonds” haven’t been able to mesh with the city they represent because of the pandemic. Irving’s generosity during COVID alone destroys that second fallacy. We know of no other pro player in the city who did more —and did it faster— than Irving.
Also, let’s not forget that the Nets, alone among New York teams, face a fresh reminder of COVID’s toll everyday when they go to work at HSS Training Center, the long line and low hum of mobile morgues parked across 39th Street in Sunset Park.
Finally, there’s that irritating line that we noted above, that the Nets players —presumably the “Big Three”— are a “bizarre amalgam of high-maintenance contracts and high-maintenance personalities.” Yeah, they’re quirky and controversy follows them. So what? They win, get along. Their quirks are mostly harmless and very, very human. They don’t fight like the old Yankees, don’t ruin their careers with selfish and self-destructive habits like the old Mets.
They are different from the players on those rosters and even different from most players today. They believe and act on player empowerment. They want to play where they want; be politically and social active — they won’t shut up and dribble; seek influence with their investments; command social media. The established order, including some fans, don’t like that very much. But it’s our bet that New Yorkers, with their own ambitions, their own history of taking chances — convention be damned, will increasingly embrace them.
In other words, Neil, deal with it.