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Lichtenstein: Nets Owner Prokhorov's Big Talk Makes Little Sense

By Steve Lichtenstein
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It is ON!

Well, maybe not.

Mikhail Prokhorov, the owner of the New Jers, er, Brooklyn Nets, made headlines recently by calling out his new inter-borough rival, New York Knicks poobah James Dolan, according to a New York Magazine reporter.  The writer has claimed that Prokhorov went out of his way to refer to Dolan as "that little man."

You see, after two years of running out the clock in Newark, Prokhorov has been active this summer in a desperate attempt to hijack at least some of the Knicks' turf in the Nets' inaugural season within the New York City borders.

Never mind that the Nets have circled the metropolitan area throughout the franchise's 45-year history to very little fanfare.  Sure they've been able to fill their building the few seasons they've been legitimate contenders, with Julius Erving electrifying Long Island and Jason Kidd casting a spell over East Rutherford for a few years each.  But mostly they've played in front of thousands of fans "disguised as empty seats," as Marv Albert would say.

Except when they played the Knicks.  Knicks fans could always be counted on to snag any surplus tickets at the Nets' arena.  Net fans grit their teeth when their team drew the Knicks in a playoff series, knowing that the Knicks would own the home crowd advantage no matter where the games were played.

The Knicks, on the other hand, barely consider the Nets rivals.  Not in a Rangers/Devils sense anyway.  There were always bigger fish to fry, like the Celtics, Bulls or Heat.  The Nets were the annoying little brother, jealous of the sometimes undeserved attention given to the older sibling but rarely able to accomplish anything of significance to move the spotlight.

Though it's not like the Knicks have had a lot to brag about, certainly not in the Dolan reign.  They haven't won a playoff round since 2000, the year after Dolan took control.  Under Dolan, they often have no direction.  They spend wildly on overvalued talent, trade away solid young role players, and use a revolving door to welcome and dismiss coaches.  What should we expect from Dolan, a man who allegedly still turns to Isiah Thomas for advice on basketball personnel despite his record of destroying everything he touches?

Still, the Knicks have ruled, and will continue to rule, New York City.  Brooklyn may have the glitzy new arena, the upgraded roster and Jay-Z.  But Knick fans, despite Dolan's best efforts to disgust them, have been loyal.  More than any other sport, basketball is still the city's game and Madison Square Garden is still the epicenter for pro basketball.  The slightest upswing, even a fleeting one like the bolt of lightning that was Jeremy Lin, and Knick fans lose perspective in full-holler support for their team.  The Brooklyn Nets won't change that.

Prokhorov, evidenced by his futile attempt to keep Vladimir Putin off the Russian throne, seems to like Sisyphean challenges.  In any case, I expect that it will be good for New York City basketball.  After the tanking in New Jersey, Prokhorov finally took a crowbar to his massive wallet and showed that he was ready to back up his trash-talking.  By turning over the roster while retaining Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Gerald Wallace, Prokhorov has at least made the Nets interesting.

There haven't been many seasons when both the Knicks and Nets were serious contenders.  Usually, you could count on one of them being atrocious.  Even worse were the six forgettable seasons when both were playoff-deprived.

I guess that's why I still root for both teams.  It was acceptable when the Nets were in the ABA.  The 1970s Knicks were the darlings of the media, but they were aging and besides, Dr. J was COOL.  I think my father inadvertently steered me in the Nets' direction earlier when he woke me up at 1am so I could see the Knicks wrap up their second title in Los Angeles in 1973.  When my mother objected to the school-night rousing of a 2nd-grader, he told her, "But he might never see this again."  He was right about the Knicks.

The Nets won two ABA championships, but then they sold their soul in the merger to begin their NBA odyssey.   The Nets, having moved closer to my home, were still my favorite team, but I never felt the need to abandon the Knicks.  I remember watching the first round of the 1984 playoffs in our dorm lounge—on back-to-back nights of deciding Game 5s, the Nets upset the defending champion 76ers in Philadelphia and then Bernard King outdueled Thomas for a Knick overtime victory in Detroit.  Of course, I was pretty much alone watching the Nets around midnight on delayed tape while the room was full for the live Knick contest.

I started working in Manhattan when the Knicks became the reliable team in the Patrick Ewing era. When Ewing got old, Kidd resurrected the Nets for six years while Dolan dismantled the once-proud franchise.  I get strange looks from people who see me wear a Knick shirt with a Net hat.  During the 1993 playoffs, I was part of a rocking crowd at the Meadowlands for Drazen Petrovic's last home game as a Net before his tragic death and later was among the dumbfounded at the Garden during the Charles Smith stuffing by the Bulls.  Though the Knicks and the Nets have always played in the same division, they have faced each other just twice in the past 29 postseasons.  Both series were one-sided.

This could be the year all that changes.  NBA seasons aren't decided on paper, but most would agree that the Nets have closed the talent gap on the Knicks.  At best, both are expected to be among the second-tier within the Eastern Conference, clearly behind the Heat, Bulls and Celtics.  A four/five first-round match-up would be Prokhorov's dream, but my headache.

Prokhorov has opted for a full-scale scorched-earth invasion of New York City, with an expensive marketing campaign to match his big talk.  I don't understand the point.  He'll get the crowds with the new building, the consumer-friendly upper-level pricing, and, most importantly, if, as expected, the Nets play competitive basketball.

I just don't think it will be at the Knicks' expense.  We'll know for sure on November 1, when the Nets open the season at the Barclays Center versus the Knicks.  We'll see who the refs give the good whistle to in the last two minutes.

Will the Nets make major inroads on the Knicks' turf? Sound off in the comments below!

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