By Steve Lichtenstein
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At his introductory press conference last month, newly-acquired Nets forward Paul Pierce had the body language of someone who was forced to give away his dog. It made many wonder whether the Hall-of-Fame bound Pierce would bring his renowned passion to Brooklyn after getting tossed aside by Boston despite 15 stellar seasons.
Well, judging by his comments in his media rounds on Thursday, Pierce seems to be better embracing his new situation. I loved his comments on how he wants this to be the best team he’s ever played on, and only a championship will validate it.
Of course, that was not the headline. Instead, the talk-radio babble will surely focus on his other stated challenge: taking on the Knicks.
“I think it’s time for the Nets to start running this city,” Pierce said during a radio interview on Thursday.
I hate to break it to you, Pierce, but it’s not going to happen, certainly not while you’re wearing Brooklyn black.
And it doesn’t matter.
The Knicks will continue to rule New York City as they always have in terms of public support and media coverage. As a long-suffering Nets fan, I’ve come to grips with that reality. The Knicks are ingrained in the city’s culture. Just like their Madison Square Garden co-tenants, the Rangers.
Seven Stanley Cups between them in a 20-year span and Devils and Islanders fans still get drowned out when the Rangers (with their one title in over 70 years) visit their buildings. The Nets went to consecutive NBA Finals in 2002-03 (in years when the Knicks stunk) and were treated as second-class citizens within the metropolitan area.
Ah, but you say that there’s more allure in Brooklyn, with all those folks who have pined for a second chance at rooting for a big-time team after the Dodgers bolted in 1958, as opposed to the suburbs.
My response: The borough has more people like Spike Lee, who bleeds Brooklyn but would never turn on his Knicks, than you think.
Last year I attended the December matchup between the two rivals at Barclays Center. The crowd was definitely pro-Knicks, somewhere above a 60-40 split. The vast majority in the upper deck, however, were donning Knicks blue. Even the ushers at Barclays went gaga for the Knicks as they took the floor for warm-ups.
More disconcerting to me was witnessing the large contingents supporting such teams as the Heat, Celtics, Lakers and, especially, the Bulls, who laid waste to the Nets’ supposed “home-court advantage” by taking a seventh game in the first round of the playoffs at Barclays. Bulls fans took advantage of Brooklyn’s relative apathy by sweeping up tickets (PLAYOFF TICKETS!) available at the box office as late as game day.
Those are the seats the Nets should look to turn as they evolve from paper tigers into real challengers to the Heat’s throne.
This season presents a rare opportunity for the franchise. Owner Mikhail Prokhorov has gone above and beyond what anyone else would commit to in terms of delivering a loaded roster to their city.
Pierce, along with his Boston buddies Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry, bring needed mental toughness to a team that often came unglued last year at the slightest sign of adversity. In addition to boasting a starting five with a combined 35 All-Star appearances, the Nets bulked up their bench to keep their more aging stars fresh for the games that count the most.
Bringing a true championship contender, and then playing like one, will do more for the Nets’ bandwagon than if they happened to take three of four from the Knicks.
Still, Chicago will be tougher with the return of Derrick Rose, and Indiana also improved over the summer. Oh, and the best player in the world still resides in Miami.
For the Nets, meeting their lofty expectations will be tough enough.
So please just stop with this Knicks fetish. I heard it all last season and it didn’t do any good. So many wasted breaths from the likes of Joe Johnson, Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace. It made it seem like the Knicks were the Nets’ sole measuring stick.
Former coach Avery Johnson was so fascinated with what was going on in Manhattan early last season that he tried to turn his club into Knicks East by playing a similar small-ball style. As if Keith Bogans shot threes like J.R. Smith or Steve Novak.
I get that the Nets’ business side is in heavy competition with their neighbors, and I applaud anyone who tweaks MSG’s monopolist. James Dolan. The four games between the two teams this season should be a lot of fun for the fans, especially if the Knicks can stay healthy enough to give the Nets a run at the Atlantic Division title.
But even if the Nets get the better of their crosstown rivals and take the Atlantic (which I think they will, for what that’s worth), they’d still be treated like guests in their own home should the two teams meet in the playoffs.
Forget Pierce’s limited run in Brooklyn — I don’t see that changing in my lifetime.
For a FAN’s perspective of the Nets, Jets and the NHL, follow Steve on Twitter @SteveLichtenst1.
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