by Dave Zirin / @edgeofsports
Rare is the time I would ever pity a man worth $14 billion. But Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian Master of the Universe who owns the New Jersey Nets, still thinks he bought a team destined for greatness in Brooklyn. He still thinks that Newark, empty seats, and his current dispirited losing team, is just a holding pattern until the New Jersey Nets become the Brooklyn Nyets and start winning championships. He thinks that in these tight economic times, $14 billion will open every door. He’s in for a rude awakening.
My father was born and raised in Brooklyn. I grew up just across the bridge in Manhattan, but spent more time in Brooklyn than an agoraphobic hipster. I know Brooklyn and I know its wary relationship with the world of sports. This is a place that’s never quite gotten over Walter O’Malley, the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, abandoning Ebbets Field and Flatbush Avenue for Chavez Ravine and the movie stars of Los Angeles. Yet in the decades after the Dodgers betrayal, the area built its own sense of identity. It was the Bensonhurst Brooklyn streets where John Travolta strutted in Saturday Night Fever. It was the Bed Stuy—do or die—of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing that burned the hood in order to save it. It was Biggie Smalls and Mos Def. It was Brooklyn.
As Manhattan drenched itself in 1980s excess, its very existence as a cloistered protectorate of what the city once was, became its own peculiar point of pride. But as anyone who has set foot in Brooklyn over the last decade will attest, those days are dead as the quail-under-glass served at the corner bistro. The borough has become the new Manhattan: the place you can’t afford to live. It’s become a magnet for chain stores and fancy restaurants. Unlike Travolta’s Tony Manero, Brooklyn isn’t the place ambitious kids dream of leaving anymore. It’s where entitled college grads dream of moving to.
If you don’t understand this dynamic, then you can’t understand the dread felt by every last Brooklynite with whom I’ve spoken about the Nets’ impending move. It’s not just that the Nets—with the exception of a brief honeymoon courtesy of Jason Kidd—have been a dysfunctional mess since Dr. J left town 35 years ago, although that’s certainly true. It’s not that the Knicks, especially in what must now be called “the Amar’e Era,” have cornered the market on hoops mojo in the city. It’s the $4.9 billion Atlantic Yards project, with a new arena at its heart, courtesy of scandal-plagued developer Bruce Ratner and dragged over the finish line by Prokhorov. Despite promises by Ratner and his flacks that the project will create “an urban oasis” in the heart of Brooklyn, residents see it more like an exercise in ethnic cleansing—the ethnicity in question being people who are actually from Brooklyn. They see rising rents, shuttered local businesses, torn down homes, and a string of the chain restaurants that seem to circle all NBA arenas. They see it making continued residency impossible.
Maybe that’s Prokhorov’s and Ratner’s idea of an oasis: a Brooklyn without Brooklynites. But I can argue with certainty: It is a dream, disconnected from reality, to think that the people of Brooklyn will come out in force to support this franchise. It is a dream to think that this “project” will run roughshod through the borough without more resistance to come. I’m sorry none of his well-paid advisors told Prokhorov the news, but Brooklyn will never go gently into that good night.