Brooklyn is only 14 miles from East Rutherford, N.J., where the Nets hope they are living out their final days as an afterthought in the NBA consciousness. They play their games in a sparsely populated, antiquated building known now as the IZOD Center. They do this only because they have to, only because their dream of becoming masters of their domain in a big-city borough is on hold.
In reality, Brooklyn gets farther away from New Jersey with each passing day.
|Bruce Ratner's plan for the Nets to move to Brooklyn and play in the Barclays Center has hit repeated snags. (Getty Images)|
Cleveland was the Mistake by the Lake in the 1970s, after the Cuyahoga River caught fire. Now something is smoldering in East Rutherford, and it's no surprise that it stinks. The Mistake at the Meadowlands is either in full bloom or utter decline, depending on your level of optimism and tolerance for architectural blight and folly in challenging economic times.
So it's easy to figure out why the Nets want to leave New Jersey. But where are they going? The $4 billion Atlantic Yards development in Brooklyn has been delayed numerous times by lawsuits, and now the credit crisis and real estate slowdown have spread like toxic fumes. This week, Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz -- still an ardent supporter of the project -- admitted that it will have to be scaled back due to the economy.
"Make no mistake -- the Barclays Center will be built, the Nets will be playing in Brooklyn, and Brooklyn will have a world-class arena after more than 50 years of waiting to get back to the big leagues," Markowitz said in a statement.
"But frankly, as we all know, the economic realities have changed since the inception of this project. ... To that end, I am asking Forest City Ratner and the Empire State Development Corporation to give Barclays' design a second look, and conceptualize a sports and entertainment venue that is more economically feasible."
I hope all that is true. But for all intents and purposes, work has ceased at the Brooklyn site, which was conceived as an ambitious commercial and residential real estate development anchored by the Nets' arena. Supporters say all the work that can be done has been done while they wait for a court ruling on the last remaining legal challenge to the project sometime this spring.
At a time when NBA sources tell CBSSports.com that several teams are having trouble collecting naming-rights payments for their arenas -- the Miami Heat sued sponsors and premium seat holders who owe the team $1.6 million, according to published reports -- Barclays has reaffirmed its commitment to having its name on the Brooklyn arena. This arrangement, of course, would be contingent on the arena actually being built. Groundbreaking has now been pushed to sometime this year, which would make 2011-12 the earliest possible debut for the Brooklyn Nets. Forgive me if I'm in believe-it-when-I-see-it mode.
Maybe I got distracted by something important that is happening 2,800 miles away in Olympia, Wash., where the future of basketball in Seattle hangs in the balance. The Washington State Legislature convened this week, facing an April deadline to allocate state funding as a prelude to Seattle getting a replacement team for the SuperSonics. It will be a tough road. Facing an estimated $5.1 billion deficit, lawmakers are deathly afraid of splurging on sports when important state services are being slashed to the bone.
"This isn't the best budget climate to be doing this sort of stuff," said Seattle city attorney Thomas Carr, a supporter of using state funding to renovate KeyArena.
|There are no guarantees that Nets part-owner Jay-Z -- a LeBron buddy -- will see his team reach Brooklyn. (Getty Images)|
Now follow me here: Bruce Ratner bought the Nets with the sole purpose of moving them to Brooklyn. If the team doesn't make it there, then what? Ratner would either sell or move the Nets somewhere else. Since the NBA has no plans to expand, there is only one city that has an arena (assuming it gets renovated and updated), a committed ownership group (led by Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer) with the blessing of NBA commissioner David Stern and the league's Board of Governors, and a loyal fan base that adored its NBA team for 41 years. And it isn't Newark. It's Seattle.
"I think you've lost your mind," said a Nets source who is about five years late on that news.
The Seattle Nets? Well, no, any team going to Seattle would have to keep the SuperSonics name, colors and history. Besides the utter disappointment that would ensue if the Brooklyn project failed -- not to mention the lost revenue associated with killing a big-market team -- I can't believe nobody has thought of this.
I'm thinking of it now. I can't say that I support the idea or believe the Nets going to Seattle would be preferable to Brooklyn. Far from it. Brooklyn is home to 2.5 million residents, more than Memphis, Charlotte, Oklahoma City and Seattle combined. One of those residents is rap mogul Jay-Z, a part-owner of the Nets and close friend of LeBron James. Basketball-wise, the Nets are in the capable hands of president Rod Thorn and general manager Kiki Vandeweghe, who will have the team ready to contend for a title if they ever get to Brooklyn. I'm sure of it.
But the landscape in the NBA and pro sports could change dramatically in the next five years. I don't think anything can be ruled out when trying to predict the breadth of those changes. The economy has blown a gaping hole in team revenues, and the first salvos are set to be launched around the All-Star break in what could be a crippling collective bargaining fight. Even Stern admitted before the season that only half of his 30 teams were making a profit. That was before the economic collapse.
If lawmakers in Washington go ahead with the KeyArena funding, Seattle could have its choice of teams in the next several years. Memphis and Charlotte both have attendance issues and opt-out clauses in their arena leases, though the penalties for moving are reportedly in the $100 million range for each. Most people assume the Maloof brothers would move only to Las Vegas if they ever left Sacramento, but a person involved in the process of bringing a team back to Seattle said some key politicians are holding out hope that the Kings could be had.
Which team is most likely to relocate to Seattle?
It'll never happen
Total Votes: 3,716
The Nets? Nobody mentions them. But if Brooklyn never happens, the Nets would have the clearest path to Seattle of any existing NBA team. All it would require is for them to be sold to Ballmer and his ownership group, which sources believe would easily pass muster with Stern and the NBA team owners. It is expected that Ballmer's group would reaffirm its $150 million commitment toward the KeyArena renovation as long as the state funding is approved and a team is available.
Many owners would staunchly oppose moving the Nets before a small-market team like Charlotte or Memphis, but I know one member of the Board of Governors who doesn't care which team goes to Seattle: Bennett, who stands to save $30 million no matter which team it is. For Seattle fans sensitive to hijacking someone else's team, the Nets would be a guilt-free option. No strings attached, no $100 million lease-breaking fees to be paid.
"We'd hate to be put in the position of doing to another city what's been done to us," said Brian Robinson, co-founder of "Save Our Sonics," which has shifted its focus to fixing Seattle Center with KeyArena as the anchor.
Robinson says this is a do-or-die moment for anyone hoping to see the NBA in Seattle in the foreseeable future. And he's afraid that given the economic and political climate, the state funding has only a 50-50 chance of passing --- even though the money wouldn't be spent on the arena unless a team materialized.
"It's this year or bust," Robinson said. "I think it'll be 20 years before Seattle gets an NBA team unless they take this common-sense action."
Dreams, visions and possibly immense disappointments will be colliding on opposite coasts in the coming months. I wonder if somehow, some way, there could be a connection.
Stranger things have happened, and most assuredly will again. Remember, there is an NBA team in Oklahoma City, a NASCAR track in Las Vegas and a bridge in Brooklyn that has been sold a few times without ever actually changing hands.