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Regrets? He has a few but Brett Yormark did his way

Los Angeles Lakers v Brooklyn Nets Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

In a podcast with a fellow Brooklyn businessman, Brett Yormark sounds a lot like Frank Sinatra. No, not the Old Blue Eyes of “New York, New York,” but the more clear-eyed “My Way” version. Something like this...

Regrets, I’ve had a few

But then again, too few to mention

I did what I had to do

And saw it through without exemption

I planned each chartered course

Each careful step along the byway

But more, much more than this

I did it my way

Indeed, he did. Often controversial and known as both a tough taskmaster and serial exaggerator, Yormark deserves the lion’s share of the credit for moving the Nets to Brooklyn and setting the stage for the franchise’s level of success which even he admits was too often a touch-and-go affair. It may have been Bruce Ratner’s visions and it may have been Mikhail Prokhorov’s billions that got it done, but Yormark was in charge the entire way.

Yormark spoke with the Jon Schultz podcast, hosted by Schultz, Co-Founder at Onyx Equities, recently. He admitted being “naive” about how long and tough it would be just to build Barclays Center which opened on his 46th birthday in 2012. (The podcast was first reported by Norman Oder of The Atlantic Yards/Pacific Park Report whose editor, Norman Oder, perhaps Yormark’s biggest critic during the seven years it took to get the arena built and opened.)

“So my biggest challenge was... and I kind of knew this going in, but maybe wasn’t crystal clear, when I took the job as the CEO of the Nets, it was with the caveat that the team was moving to Brooklyn. I didn’t know much about real estate, eminent domain and the challenges and moving the team to Brooklyn. I just knew that that was the ultimate goal.”

He acknowledged that that lack of knowledge extended the process.

“So let’s say I was a little naive,” he told Schultz. “What was said to me was that ‘we’ll get to Brooklyn in three years, Brett, You’ll be in New Jersey for a couple of years.’ It ended up being seven.”

The Nets, during those years, were a lame duck, with poor play, shrinking attendance, and an increasingly cynical fanbase. In 2002-03, the last year before Ratner bought the team and announced the move, the Nets drew 15,184 on average to Continental Airlines Arena. By the time they left in 2011-12, they were down to 13,961 paid fans per game.

“In some respects, we became a lame duck team because fans aren’t going to stay vested when they know you’re moving across the river,” Yormark said. “So that was one of the biggest challenges: maintaining a viable business in New Jersey while trying to at the same time, simultaneously, building your roadmap to Brooklyn and you’ve got to set the tone and flavor for that move to Brooklyn.

There were a host of issues that kept getting in the way, starting with neighborhood protests about the scale of the Atlantic Yards project of which the arena was a part. The original plan called for 16 skyscrapers as well as the arena at an already congested intersection.

There was the financial crisis of 2007-08 that dried up financing and a long-running battle over eminent domain, personalized by activist Daniel Goldstein’s refusal to leave his Pacific Street condo.

“In 2008, in the midst of you know balancing that challenge, you hit a financial crisis where: are you gonna get the financing to move to Brooklyn. Are sponsors going to commit? So you’re a viable business getting to Brooklyn et cetera et cetera. So there were multiple challenges along the way to Brooklyn.

“And then there was the eminent domain the issue which caused—truly caused the delays in getting to Brooklyn because we were moving the team to an area in Brooklyn where there was housing already there, and we had to displace those homeowners in order to build Barclays Center.

That wasn’t resolved until a State Court of Appeals ruling in November 2009 permitted things to move forward. At around the same time, Prokhorov agreed to buy 80 percent of the team and 45 percent of the arena. By March 2010, the Nets broke ground for Barclays Center and two months later, Prokhorov took control of the franchise. Two and a half years later, the Nets were in Brooklyn.

Yormark credits the resolve of Ratner and his own conviction and belief for being able to get through what Schultz described as one thing after another going wrong.

“He truly had the vision for moving the team to Brooklyn,” said Yormark. “Always convinced it was going to happen. It wasn’t a question of if, but a question of when. And I relied on his passion, his conviction and the fact that he was a developer and had gone through some of these challenges before in other meaningful projects in the city that ultimately we would get there.

“When I look back on them now, I just think in life you need to have great conviction,” Yormark argued. “You got to have great belief in in what you’re doing and not that you want to convince yourself it’s going to happen, but you got to make sure that on the merits of... this vision and mission that you can get there. And I never never wavered on why we’re moving to Brooklyn and why it was a great story and had to be told.”

However, Yormark, now 55, admits there were “moments” when he didn’t know if he could meet the challenge as his confidence wained.

“Yes, there were moments where I said to myself, ‘I’m not sure I can do it’ because there were multiple setbacks, we were facing,” he admitted.

Yormark identified the organization’s failure to integrate the New York Islanders into the Brooklyn as his biggest challenge, a challenge that ultimately failed when the NHL club moved back to Nassau Coliseum, then to their new home at Belmont.

“I just think we didn’t know some of the dynamics going in.” he acknowledged. “We thought bringing another sports franchise to Brooklyn would be ideal. It would fill dates at the Barclays Center. The Islanders at the time—Belmont, which is their home now, really wasn’t even on them on the radar screen—they needed to move out of the Coliseum, they needed to move to a state-of-the-art building or who knows where they would have gone, maybe they would have left New York.”

There were of course a number of issues with the Islanders in Brooklyn included a “basketball-centric” arena with obstructed views and an immovable scoreboard that sat one end of the hockey pad.

“It ended up being very challenging because the team never became rooted in Brooklyn,” he said. “Brooklyn’s a very unique community—they they know someone that is all in and and someone that’s not and you know the dynamic was —the players were living in Long Island, practicing there and just coming to the borough for games and it was a little bit of a disconnect. No one’s fault.”

In the end, Prokhorov lost big bucks and the Islanders found a new home that would present his successor, Joe Tsai, with a new competitor. But the Islander fans are ultimately happy with the way things turned out.

Oder offers a number of Greek chorus-like comments throughout his report on the podcast, all of them worthy but in the end, Barclays Center is a centerpiece of Brooklyn’s continuing revival and the Nets were able to build a championship contender filled with stars and superstars.

After Prokhorov sold the team to Tsai, Yormark moved on to Roc Nation as co-CEO with his twin brother and the Nets signed Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the Nets held a party to wish him and Prokhorov’s No. 2, Dmitry Razumov, a fond farewell. When it came time for Yormark to speak, he referred to talking points, always seeking precision in telling his story.