|Nets went all-in to bring back Deron Williams, revamping their roster in his image and with his suggestions. (US Presswire)|
NEW YORK -- There were no assaults on the senses -- no fire-breathing backboards or pyrotechnics, no hyperactive, screaming P.A. announcer. It was punctuated with a little trash-talk at the end, with Deron Williams having to remind New Yorker A.J. Price that this was his home now.
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In between, the Nets finally christened their new basketball palace Monday night and brought professional basketball to the borough of Brooklyn for the first time. But if not for the spontaneous, "Let's go Brooklyn" chants -- the likes of which had not been heard since the Dodgers left town 55 years ago -- you never would've known you were two miles from the spot where Ebbets Field stood or six miles from Madison Square Garden.
Somehow, it seemed perfectly normal for an NBA team -- two of them, in fact -- to be running up and down a shiny, herring-bone court under spotlights that kept the focus on the floor and the stands in relative darkness.
Somehow, for a night, basketball in Brooklyn made sense.
"We've been waiting to play in this building for a long time," said Williams, who had 11 points and nine assists as the Nets opened their new arena -- and a new chapter in franchise history -- with a 98-88 preseason victory over the Wizards. "We look forward to playing many more here and winning many more here."
The big plans and the endless legal fights all came to a ceremonious end as the Nets completed the most massive franchise reinvention imaginable. The announced crowd of 14,219 (3,500 shy of a sellout) was better than any crowd I recall witnessing in Newark -- which is to say, they were breathing. For the record, the Wizards' Emeka Okafor scored the first NBA basket on Brooklyn soil -- a dunk that came 25 seconds into the game. Kris Humphries registered the first hoop for the home team -- a layup off a feed from Williams with 90 seconds elapsed.
Where this goes from here? Who knows? The Nets went all-in with Williams, revamping the roster in his image and with his suggestions, and now they are trying to no longer be the J.V. team in New York. Where style points and talent are concerned, I'd say they're well on their way. As far as shouldering the same burden the Knicks face to contend with the Heat for Eastern Conference supremacy or face slash-and-burn tabloid headlines, it's just going to take some time.
The Nets, for a change, will have fannies in the seats and will generate buzz by virtue of their change of address and Williams' star power alone. But they're in the novelty stage of the honeymoon, and it makes you wonder what kind of story this will be when the newness wears off.
The Knicks? They're always a story -- mostly, in recent history, for all the wrong reasons. With Carmelo Anthony and Amar'e Stoudemire toiling in a more famous, if battle-worn building in Manhattan, the Knicks will generate headlines with staying power -- good or bad. In a crowded basketball and sports landscape that just got a lot more cramped, the Nets have to earn that kind of treatment, beginning with the regular season opener against those very same Knicks on Nov. 1.
"We know what's at stake," said Joe Johnson, the Nets' highest-paid player and a second-tier star who admitted Monday night he's relishing taking a backseat to Williams after struggling to carry that load himself in Atlanta. "Obviously, we want to win a championship, and we don't feel we're farfetched from that. We know what we've got to do to get there."
And if they don't? So what? The real catastrophe for a franchise that couldn't get Anthony or Dwight Howard would've been losing Williams this past July. That was the Nets' NBA Finals, and they swept the series 4-0 and didn't allow a basket. That's how important it was to bring a star of Williams' caliber to this new building -- in a borough big enough to be a city -- so people would care.
The announced crowd for a Monday night preseason game might've been 3,500 less than a sellout, but it was 10,000 more than they ever could've hoped for in their Jersey basketball purgatory. Finding customers to entertain here won't be the problem. Brooklyn, with a population of more than 2.5 million, would be the fourth-largest city in America if it were a city -- ahead of Houston and behind Chicago.
Take Brooklyn away, and New York would still be the most populated city in the country by nearly 2 million. If you can't persuade 19,000 of them to sit and watch a basketball game on any given night, something's very wrong.
It'll take some getting used to, as evidenced by an odd moment in the third quarter when the otherwise mercifully understated P.A. man had this to say after Brook Lopez committed an offensive foul: "In the NBA, an offensive foul is not a team foul." You don't say. Anyway, nobody flinched.
"The P.A. announcer didn't even have to tell them to stand up," said coach Avery Johnson, revealing with that statement just how vapid his past two years of employment really have been. "And every time they holler, 'Brooklyn,' even though we're trying to stay focused and do our job, it's nice to hear that chant."
With Williams oddly on the floor to close out the final minute of the Nets' first home victory, he heard something else that got him going. Price, who hails from Long Island, was yapping, "I'm home," at Williams as the clock wound down.
"I don't even know what that means," Williams said, "but that's all he kept saying."
Informed of Price's roots, Williams responded with a dismissive, "OK," and added, "I guess he had some boys in the crowd that he wanted to impress, you know, while he can, with what little minutes he's going to get this year."
And Williams told Price something else that somehow summed up the night whether he realized it or not.
"It's my home now," he said.