By Jason Keidel
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You’d never hear it over all the semantic detours, but an NBA playoff game is being played in Brooklyn on Friday night.
The world west of the Mississippi often whines about East Coast bias, the elitist media omerta to keep the news east of the Hudson. There’s some truth to that, but even within our town there’s an effort to freeze out four of our five boroughs, a media firewall that runs along the East, Harlem and Hudson Rivers.
Turn on our local television stations and you’ll hear an abundance of reportage and commentary about the Mets, Jets, Giants, Yanks, Knicks and Rangers. Nary a word about the Brooklyn Nets, who are home on Friday night and are poised to take a 2-1 lead in their playoff series against Toronto.
Instead of wondering how the Nets will keep their graybeards fresh for a deep playoff run while snatching home-court advantage, we talk about the prospects of Melo remaining a Knick.
The Nets were better than the Knicks, a lot better. But who’s chirping about Friday night’s game against the Toronto Raptors? Toronto won its division with a surprisingly solid season and was favored to beat Brooklyn, yet the Nets can command the series with a win tonight at Barclays Center.
And the Nets are a great story. Exhumed from the New Jersey abyss, they built a glittering new home in Brooklyn, a most fertile soil for basketball icons. The borough goes back to Larry Brown, Billy Cunningham and Red Auerbach, and on to more recent luminaries like Chris Mullin, Bernard King and Lance Stephenson.
Then the Nets plunged down the bowels of the Eastern Conference, 10 games under .500 as late as December. Media idiots, like yours truly, called for Jason Kidd’s vocational head. Kidd kept his trademark, monotone persona and coolly led the Nets to a robust record, grabbing the sixth seed in the playoffs, well above the .500 mark.
Now the Nets are 48 minutes from seizing home-court advantage, while inching toward a trip to the conference semifinals, something unfathomable four months ago. The Nets were headless, rudderless and leaderless.
Deron Williams was dogging it, Kevin Garnett couldn’t stay healthy for a week and Paul Pierce looked ancient. Kidd looked overwhelmed, and even pulled that adolescent stunt on the sideline, spilling his soda on the court to steal a few seconds with his squad. Now they’re the toast of a town that doesn’t even look their way.
And it’s impossible not to root for Shaun Livingston. In 2007, he suffered a galling knee injury, too gruesome to even replay on television. He essentially shredded his entire knee, snapping his ACL and MCL, and even spraining his MCL. If that weren’t enough, he dislocated his patella and tibiofibular joint. His kneecap literally popped out.
Then Livingston lived the vagabond life of the injured athlete, a corporeal dart hurled at a map of America. Livingston played for an endless scroll of clubs, including the Clippers, Heat, Thunder, Wizards, Bobcats, Bucks, Wizards and Cavaliers, with a pit stop at the Tulsa 66ers. He is the emblem of toughness and perseverance. For his fortitude he’s now a relevant player on a playoff team.
Yet all we hear about is cap room and Carmelo Anthony. You’d think the Knicks were playing for the finals. The Knicks don’t even have a first-round draft pick, as they’re still paying for the Melo trade that has brought them, um, nothing. But facts interfere with the Knicks and their fans’ jaded approach to success. You expect the surreal from The World’s Most Wretched Arena. But even the media has consumed the Kool-Aid. “No Nets” seems to be the corporate coda.
Perhaps it’s because the Nets are led by a bunch of mercenaries. Garnett, Pierce, Williams and Joe Johnson spent the bulk of their careers wearing enemy jerseys. But Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire, J.R. Smith and Tyson Chandler aren’t exactly former farmhands who were developed in the D-League by the Knicks.
Is it the destination? Is it the dysfunction? Is it the soap-operatic noise that comes from 7th Avenue? Even when the Knicks are horrible — which is pretty pro forma for them — they bogart the bold ink.
The Knicks’ apologists — swathed in their orange-and-blue Snuggies — who hammered me this week for predicting that James Dolan wouldn’t allow Phil Jackson to run the team with autonomy, have slithered into their online bunkers. Just hours after my column ran, Frank Isola reported that Dolan has indeed jammed his hands into the Jackson cookie jar.
Apologists do that. From Joe Paterno to Dolan, they blindly defend the indefensible, standing on their prerogative as alumni or longtime fans. They tend to drown you out with volume instead of logic. It’s infinitely easier to call you a moron than kill you with facts.
The Knicks have an ancestral edge on the Nets. And they are in the middle of Midtown. Location is essential. But Brooklyn is every bit as much a borough as Manhattan. Having been born and raised on the island, I was imbued with the native hubris, certain that when God created the universe, he started with Times Square.
But this is more than a turf war. The Nets have been on the periphery since they played on Long Island 40 years ago. Then they went to the smoky, smelly swamp of the Meadowlands, which is where I reside now. The Giants and Jets can pull it off because pro football has a following that would make Joe Carroll blush.
But when the Nets built Barclays Center — which, ironically, is on the very plot of land Walter O’Malley wanted for the Brooklyn Dodgers — they cemented themselves as New York City citizens.
If the Knicks were playing the Raptors, WFAN and our competitors down the dial would be rabid in the throaty rhetoric of pick-and-roll playoff basketball. The spellbound congregation would already be planning to play Miami after one playoff win. But since it’s the Nets, we get fleeting flashbacks, a few stats scrolling along the bottom of your television screen and a quick plug for whatever network is carrying the game.
We’ve always argued over which sports own the high ground over our 8 million residents. While baseball is America’s pastime, football is America’s game. And though New York City is often regarded as a baseball town, basketball is played infinitely more than any other sport on our local playgrounds.
Going all the way back to Pete Axthelm’s sublime book about playground legends, from Lew Alcindor to Julius Erving to Earl Manigault, from West 4th to Rucker Park, basketball has always owned a significant slice of our city’s soul.
But it seems the Knicks still own the five boroughs and beyond, for better or worse. Much worse.
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