The Brooklyn Nets, sports franchise of the future, visit Miami, city of the future, which is how author T.D. Allman described our steamy metropolis in his prescient book.
“New York is granite; New York is about cold,” Allman wrote in 1987. “Miami is very different because Miami is vegetal and Miami is about fire, and that is the first paradox of Miami, photosynthesis and fire together.”
The new Nets play the defending champ Miami Heat on Wednesday night by the bay. Brand-new hip meets old-hat hip. Their rappers vs. our rappers. New York aggression vs. Miami flash. Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Joe Johnson versus LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
This has nothing to do with the Knicks. Brooklyn is a world apart from Manhattan and Madison Square Garden. The Nets said goodbye to the Meadowlands swamp, Snooki and all that New Jersey implies to start something bold in New York’s biggest borough.
Behind the transformation, the two most noteworthy characters are Mikhail Prokhorov, a 6-8 Russian oligarch with a passion for basketball, and Jay-Z, a.k.a. Shawn Carter, a hip-hop superstar with a passion for Brooklyn.
Prokhorov owns 80 percent of the team; Jay-Z owns one-fifteenth of 1 percent. Together, they represent a model for American sports that merges globalization and celebrity.
The goal is an NBA title for the team and popularity for the brand. Money and marketing make the world go round; the Nets have both with Prokhorov (net worth $13 billion) and Jay-Z, the entrepreneur in music, sports bars and apparel who ought to have a trademark by his name. It doesn’t hurt that he’s married to another single-name star, Beyoncé.
NBA commissioner David Stern dreams in dollar signs. The Nets are fulfilling his vision of an international league — Chinese owners of a Shanghai team? The Madrid Matadors? Stern was not pleased about Jay-Z’s criminal background and misogynistic lyrics. But he respects Jay-Z as a businessman, and, crucial for a league run by an old white guy and his cronies, Jay-Z keeps the younger generation interested.
Florida’s Malcolm Glazer went across the Atlantic to buy a soccer team, Manchester United of England’s Premier League. Qatar is getting in on the action. Why not a Russian in New York? Prokhorov has more personality than most American franchise owners.
Dolphins owner Stephen Ross has tried to leverage celebrity in promoting the Dolphins during their long down phase. But Marc Anthony, Jennifer Lopez, Gloria Estefan, Jimmy Buffett and the Williams sisters don’t have the presence or influence of Jay-Z, who lobbied James and Carmelo Anthony to join the Nets. Players will listen to him. Jay-Z, a nightclub owner, has also advised the Nets on how to enhance arena entertainment.
Jay-Z grew up poor, angry and ambitious in the Marcy Houses projects near the Nets’ new home. The area was his territory when he was a drug dealer. He pled guilty to stabbing a rival record producer 13 years ago. He turned his life around, became a successful rap artist, expanded his portfolio and jumped at Jason Kidd’s idea that he invest in the Nets.
The Nets, with their black-and-white uniforms and the logo that Jay-Z helped design, are hoping to bring the same sort of cache to Brooklyn that the Heat brought to Miami. Except that Brooklyn isn’t as desperate as Miami to inflate its breasts in order to join the see-and-be-seen crowd. Much of Miami still doesn’t understand that real cool is never having to act cool. Subtlety has no history here, unless it’s the Everglades.
Brooklyn has tons of history, but no major sports team since the Dodgers left for Los Angeles. Half a century went by, and the Bronx, Long Island, even Jersey had teams. The New York Nets, starring Julius Irving and coached by former Heat coach Kevin Loughery, won two ABA titles, but no one figured they could beat the NBA’s Celtics at that time.
Now the challenge is gaining fans in Brooklyn, where the $1 billion Barclays Center is resented by some residents who describe its design as industrial hellscape.
“I will turn Knicks fans into Nets fans,” Prokhorov said.
He also called sour, secretive and short Knicks owner James Dolan “that little man” in New York Magazine article.
When he and Dallas owner Mark Cuban were bidding for Williams, Prokhorov proclaimed, “If he wins I will crush him with the kickboxing throwdown.” He posed with Jay-Z for a 20-foot billboard near the Garden with the heading “Blueprint for greatness.”
The Nets did not look like the team of the future on Monday, in a 122-96 collapse against the lousy Timberwolves. They looked like their former Jersey selves. And the unfilled seats looked familiar, too.
“Defensively, we’ve got a long way to go,” coach Avery Johnson said.
Prokhorov predicted an NBA title by 2015 for his Nets, 58-172 over the past three seasons. He has confidence; he ran against Vladimir Putin for the Russian presidency.
But even with a financial czar and rap star leading the way, the Nets will learn what the Heat learned in Miami: They have to win games in order to win over Brooklyn.