NEW YORK – In the end, the sweetest serenade tumbled down into the Barclays Center, the kind of long, loud connection that had never belonged to the Nets across the bridges and tunnels into New Jersey. All these years lost in the shadow of Madison Square Garden, all these years lost in the long ago mystique of the New York Knicks, all these years as a punch line playing in a Jersey swampland that only Springsteen could romanticize, the Nets had finally risen out of the rubble of their own wayward existence.
"Broooook-lyn," the voices boomed over and over.
All these years, all these nights that Madison Square and the Meadowlands and Newark belonged to the Knicks fans flooding the turnstiles, there had come a most transformational night for one of the NBA's most historically vacuous franchises. After a 96-89 overtime victory that felt like something out of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Knicks would leave with a loss and an understanding that they never used to have across the river: Brooklyn is a road game now, the borough and its basketball team a rivalry.
"That Brooklyn chant sounds good, has a lot of rhythm to it," the Nets' Reggie Evans marveled. "You could make an album out of that chant."
The Nets had beaten the Knicks so many times – had better teams for many years – but they never had traction. The Nets had great players and excellent teams, but they never had a grip on the Metropolitan New York market. Victory over the Knicks was forever a vapor, an understanding that there was no staying power for the Nets, no chance to leave an imprint.
"This is what we've been dreaming about since I have been here," Nets coach Avery Johnson said.
The Barclays Center is a magnificent edifice, and the Nets business and marketing departments had pushed the NBA hard on delivering them the Knicks on the season's opening night in late October. The business side wanted a grand unveiling, a New York happening and yet privately the front office and coaching staffs never wanted to open with the Knicks. The basketball staff wanted time to build toward a meeting with New York, wanted to mold its team, its chemistry and gather momentum on the way to this game. For all the Nets players dismissing Monday night as simply one of 82 games, it was pure posturing.
When Johnson watched most of his players march into a morning film session far earlier than normal, with an uncommon intensity, he knew the Nets understood the magnitude of the night. "We didn't win the championship of New York," Deron Williams sniffed later.
And yet, credibility for the Nets has always started with competing with the Knicks, and together they stand atop of the Atlantic Division with 9-4 records. All along, the Nets had chased this move with an immense burden on general manager Billy King: Bring to Brooklyn a contender. It was a testament to his vision and diligence, that Williams would be in the middle of this memorable night with 16 points, 14 assists and three steals.
When King traded what would turn into the sixth overall pick for Gerald Wallace, rival GMs privately maligned him. Only, King understood Williams needed someone to get him through the rest of last season, to make the final months before free agency tolerable. And then they re-signed Wallace to deliver the kind of relentless performance that beat the Knicks on Monday night.
When King traded for Joe Johnson and the $60 million left on his contract, an Eastern Conference GM called King and congratulated him on securing Williams' commitment to stay a Net.
Only, King told the executive, he had done it with no assurances.
"What?" the GM said. "Well, you've got big…"
King had no choice. The Nets couldn't sell tickets and credibility to Brooklyn without a roster that commanded respect. Between King and assistant GM Bobby Marks, the Nets cobbled together a bench that has turned out to be the difference in beating the Knicks, Los Angeles Clippers and Boston Celtics so far. Evans had 14 rebounds, Stackhouse had 14 points, and there's a fierceness to this franchise punctuated loudly on Monday night out of Brook Lopez's line: 22 points, 11 rebounds and five blocks.
Most of all, the Nets delivered stops on Carmelo Anthony in the final minutes, and refused to let 'Melo's 35 points turn into 40 and a Knicks victory. The Knicks hate losing to the Nets, because Jim Dolan hates losing to Mikhail Prokhorov now. The Russian billionaire loves to mess with the Knicks owner, and suddenly the Knicks know that they need to grudgingly deal with a real rival across the Manhattan Bridge.
All the years the Nets had chased this night, all the false starts and delays, all the empty seats and emptier identities, there would come a big, thundering noise out of the Barclays Center that would belong to them.
Brooklyn, the people screamed over and over.
All these years, all this anticipation, and that chant thundered down on the Knicks. Finally, they understood the Nets were a road game for them now. Deron Williams was right: The Nets didn't win the championship of New York on Monday night, but they did earn something that they've never had before: a rightful part of it.
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