The Nets had a chance to win New York. Now they will try again.

Right after the final buzzer sounded in Game 7 between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Nets in the NBA Eastern Conference Semifinals last spring, Giovannie Cruz had to leave his home in Elizabeth, NJ, and surrender in a nearby park. Cruz, an avowed Nets fan for most of his 39 years, had watched the game with his 4-year-old son and ‘behaved like a madman’ until the end, when the Nets lost heartbreakingly. .

“I literally walked this park for almost an hour because of sheer disappointment,” said Cruz. “I didn’t want my son to see me too animated and use too colorful language.”

Last season was supposed to be the year, the season the Nets and their fans – both long-suffering and newcomers – would no longer be an afterthought in the NBA The last time a Brooklyn pro sports team won a championship, Jackie Robinson wore a uniform for the Dodgers in Major League Baseball. It was in 1955.

But there was more at stake for the Nets last season than just winning a championship. In a city dominated by Knicks fans, a title could have allowed the Nets to plant a basketball-shaped flag (and raise a banner) in their effort to push the balance of power away from Madison Square Garden and put back Knicks fans for them. Just ask one of the Nets’ biggest supporters, the mayor of New York.

“I really feel like this is the final act of reviving Brooklyn and giving Brooklyn its rightful place in the world, and that has huge significance for the city going forward,” Mayor Bill de Blasio, a longtime Brooklyn resident before its 2014 inauguration, said in an interview ahead of Game 3 of the semi-final series, when the Nets were leading 2-0 and a championship run seemed inevitable.

The rebirth will have to wait. This summer, the Nets revamped their roster, somehow managing to add flair to one of the best meetings on paper in NBA history. With veterans like Patty Mills and Paul Millsap now coming off the bench and healthy versions of Kevin Durant and James Harden ready to speak, expectations for the Nets will be very high. That’s true even though Kyrie Irving, left out of games until he gets the shot, doesn’t play for a while. But if the Nets don’t win at least one ring, this era will most likely be seen as one of the biggest flops of all time – and the Nets will have missed their best chance to cut the Knicks’ grip on town.

“We don’t want to be just the most popular NBA team in New York,” Nets general manager John Abbamondi said in an interview with Barclays ahead of Game 7. “We want to be a global sports icon at the level of Real Madrid or Barcelona is our aspiration.

Nine years ago, the Nets were playing their first season in Brooklyn, having been in New Jersey since 1977 following the merger with the ABA. The team had some success with the quick teams of Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson, and Kenyon Martin in the early 2000s, but they’ve spent most of their history in the wilderness of basketball, rarely attracting stars. or playing in important matches.

“It was pretty tough then,” said Trenton Hassell, a goaltender who ended his career with the Nets in New Jersey from 2008-10. “We still had some real fans coming up, but we were losing a lot that was difficult.

Moving to Brooklyn was a new beginning on many levels. They had a shiny new arena, a new branding, and a minority owner that draws the spotlight to Jay-Z, who was often on the sidelines with his megastar wife, Beyoncé.

Old and new Nets fans are mingling and forging a new collective identity. The cheers at the Barclays Center are often the most prominent from the more than 96 fans who sit in Section 114. The diehards, called the Brooklyn Brigades, are sponsored by the team and are known for their creative vocals. This is a far cry from the early days in Brooklyn, when rival fans often outnumbered the Nets and Barclays had an average turnout overall.

Richard Bearak has been a Nets fan since the 1970s and competed in the championship in 1976. He is the land use manager for Eric Adams, who is the president of the Brooklyn borough and the Democratic candidate for mayor. from New York. When Barclays first opened to the public, Bearak said, the arena was a “tourist attraction” that drew fans from both winning and opposing teams.

“A third of the crowd could have supported Golden State,” Bearak, 63, said. “At Madison Square Garden it’s really hard to be a fan of another team and expect to be there in droves.”

When the Nets first arrived from New Jersey in 2012, they did so as an intruder in some eyes. First of all, there were the New Jersey fans who didn’t appreciate losing their team. And in Brooklyn, there were those who believed that Barclays, which was part of a $ 6 billion commercial and residential redevelopment, would do more harm than good to the area, especially when it comes to gentrification and congestion.

A 2014 New York Times study based on data from Facebook showed that after two seasons in Brooklyn, the Knicks were the most popular team in all New York City zip codes except the neighborhoods surrounding Barclays – in part because of new residents who had moved to the remodeled downtown area. In response, Village Voice called the Nets a “gentrification team.”

“We didn’t have a fan base for New York or Brooklyn,” said Irina Pavlova, then a company executive of then team owner Mikhail Prokhorov. “It was zero. It was starting from scratch, especially in a city like New York, where the Knicks are such an institution.

Pavlova said the franchise has focused on using “Brooklyn” as the primary business card for recruiting new fans instead of the team name like other franchises do. The fruits of this marketing effort can still be seen today, when the most common team chant is a “Broooooklyn!”

“It was done to appeal to the residents of the borough, as they didn’t have a team to put down roots,” Pavlova said.

The folks cheering on the Nets these days can usually be put in four boxes. 1. Fans since the Nets were in the ABA playing Long Island, like Bearak. 2. New Jersey era fans like Cruz. 3. New Brooklyn Era Fans. 4. Those who are looking for specific stars, regardless of their team.

The latter group is the most difficult to follow and perhaps the most crucial for the future of the Nets in the NBA, where star players are more influential than in other team sports. Irving, Durant and Harden have attracted an uncertain number of passing fans. In the first and second halves of last season, the List A trio had three of the league’s 10 best-selling jerseys.

Lifetime Brooklyn resident Dawn Risueno, 53, became a fan of the Nets in 1990 because her ex-boyfriend preferred them over the Knicks.

She spent several years following the team across the country on an annual road trip. She converted her sport-agnostic 18-year-old husband to the cause and brought her two children and seven grandchildren.

“They had no choice in the matter,” Risueno said of his children and grandchildren. “Ever since they literally came out of the womb, I’ve had them in Net outfits.”

Bobby Edemeka, 46, a portfolio manager who was born and raised in Brooklyn, said he follows players rather than teams. But the Nets’ move to his hometown instilled pride, and Edemeka founded the Brooklyn Brigades group, which was unofficial until the Nets began sponsoring him in 2018. (Edemeka used to ‘buy lots of tickets and give them away for free to potential Nets fans.)

“You can travel all over the world and you won’t find people more proud of where they’re from than New Yorkers, and I think that is especially true for the people of Brooklyn,” Edemeka said.

For pre-Brooklyn fans like Cruz, loving the team means “waiting for the bottom to drop anytime.” Cruz lived through the 2009-10 season, when the team went 12-70. However, Cruz was upset to see the Nets leave New Jersey two years later. He nevertheless continued to support the team. Many New Jerseyans haven’t.

For new fans like Edemeka, their memories of the Nets are mostly highlights. The team made the playoffs in six of their nine seasons at Barclays. There have been two playoff wins. There hasn’t really been a lot of suffering, all things considered.

“I don’t have any emotional baggage,” said Edemeka, the Nets all-season season ticket holder. “I didn’t live between 12 and 70 years old. I’m not overwhelmed by this heritage.”

Old Nets fans and all but the most recent Knicks fans know a thing or two about emotional baggage. And yet the relative success of the Nets in Brooklyn, alongside the mostly bleak days at Madison Square Garden around the same time, hasn’t broken the city’s devotion to the Knicks.

There is, in theory, a concrete way to close this gap. Fans go one step further by teaming up with winners, as shown in a landmark study of fan behavior conducted by Robert B. Cialdini in 1976 – a psychological concept known as “basking in reflected glory”. The opposite – disassociating from losing teams – is known as “cutting off thoughtful failure.” The study found that fans are likely to say “we” in reference to their favorite team’s victory, but “they” if the team loses.

Rick Burton, professor of sports management at Syracuse University, said if the Knicks remained the most inept team, the city’s younger generations who have yet to consider the team’s allegiances could precipitate a cultural change.

“The Knicks could rule almost by default,” Burton said of the Knicks before 2012. “But with social media, 500 TV channels, a million websites, Brooklyn isn’t that far from other boroughs, everything suddenly we have to talk about the fact that the Nets seem to have a lot more cachet than the Knicks.

But the flip side is, of course, not winning, which the Nets know intimately. The promising but ultimately deflated semi-final series last season showed it.

“It has always been so difficult to be a Nets fan,” said Cruz.

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