Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Brooklyn Bounce: The rebranded Nets' first season gets a narrow, hoops-focused narrative

The New Jersey Nets' move to Brooklyn, beginning in 2012, constitutes one of the sports world's major rebrandings. The new market, coupled with the well-received new Barclays Center arena, has vaulted the value of the Nets, according to Forbes, from $357 million in 2012 to $780 million in 2014, the National Basketball Association's fifth most valuable franchise.

Their 2012-13 debut season, which ended in a first-round playoff loss, led owner Mikhail Prokhorov, the Russian billionaire, and General Manager Billy King to spend big on new players for a championship run and, of course, the opportunity to raise prices for tickets and sponsorships.

"When we broke into Brooklyn, we were really positioning ourselves as a lifestyle brand," Nets/arena CEO Brett Yormark told Adweek last September. "In year two, we are a little more product-focused." Hence the shift in slogans from "Hello Brooklyn" to "Are you ready?"

Indeed, the Nets present a case study in marketing or--to be more skeptical--hype. With the political firmament, notably Mayor Mike Bloomberg and Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, on board, the rebranded Nets and new arena got much direct and informal help.

Given that history, as well as the enduring controversy (Culture of Cheating) over the larger Atlantic Yards project, it's dismaying that sportswriter Jake Appleman focuses Brooklyn Bounce: The Highs and Lows of Nets Basketball's Historic First Season in the Borough so much on the court and locker room.

After all, the Nets had only a moderately successful season, with a roster, as Appleman writes, "that rarely rose above its superiors or expectations." No particular player--in contrast with, say, the brief New York Knick supernova Jeremy Lin--stood out.

The larger story

Die-hard Nets fans should enjoy the book. For others, the larger story of the arena and team deserves not to be crowded out by Appleman's game recaps and personal digressions.

Markowitz, who regularly invoked the second coming of the Brooklyn Dodgers, held a press conference welcoming "Brooklyn's Backcourt" and steadily dissed the "Manhattan Knicks," does not appear in the book. The business of basketball gets short shrift.

Developer Bruce Ratner, who bought the team to leverage a real estate deal, doesn't appear until page 220 of a 235-page narrative. Ratner, interviewed before Game 7 of the playoffs, shows he's no basketball fan, since, as Appleman writes, he "was already immersed in the possibility of the next deal."

"I don't have a strong opinion on the construction of the Barclays Center as I was not a part of the communities that fought over the arena," Appleman declares. "You can watch movies, read articles, or surf the Internet to form an opinion about that history."

(Then again, he late in the book does interview the Rev. Clinton Miller of Brown Memorial Baptist Church in Clinton Hill, a former high school player who criticizes the arena and tried unsuccessfully to get former NBA player Magic Johnson to build affordable housing in Brooklyn.)

The basketball story

And while Appleman late in the book observes it's "no secret that the Atlantic Yards project was a land grab for Ratner," in the first chapter he sets out his parameters:
"So this is a story born less of an interest in Russian oligarchy or urban planning or big business backroom dealing or borough protest or corporate branding or land grabs, and more a story about basketball players, successful and unsuccessful, performing for an organization seeking--still--the rare success of winning without complications."
Those basketball players, however, are just not that interesting. Nets guard Deron (pronounced Dare-wren) Williams "didn't want to do the work to be popular like so many upper-echelon NBA players." He's "perpetually brooding," while shooting guard Joe Johnson "often oozed the personality" of a decoy.

Center Brook Lopez was "likable but aloof," while forward Kris Humphries--remember, the guy who married Kim Kardashian--"was a PR machine." Center Andray Blatche, notable for tweeting about having been in "the area" but uninvolved in a hotel sexual assault, "wanted to be liked... but was still in many ways a developing adult."

Some mild swipes

Not needing to stay on good terms with his subject, Appleman gets in some mild swipes, but he doesn't burn any bridges. He suggests the team's previous slogan, "Jersey Strong, Brooklyn Ready" was inherently paradoxical.

The first sporadic "BROOOOOK-LYN" chants, according to the author, were goosed by Nets employees. (Now they're goosed by the public address system, I'd add.)

Gerald Wallace, the forward "whose hustle resonated with fans," was promoted in advertising as an "offseason fisherman," which was "fundamentally at lifestyle odds" with Brooklyn.

After the Nets fired Coach Avery Johnson, the defensive reaction by Johnson's son, blaming the players, "wasn't exactly wrong," opines Appleman.

The business of basketball

At one point, a germ of a theme peeks out. Describing the past firing of one-time Nets coach John Calipari, Appleman notes: "The lesson was, as ever business and money have a short memory when it comes to business and money."

Even if hewing to author's theme, the business of basketball deserves more attention. The Nets had final cut on The Association, the NBA-TV's annual reality show, Appleman reveals. The Nets PR staff "specialized, as much as or more than most teams, in putting the beat reporters on a collective pedestal, at times arranging practice times to meet their needs," he reveals.

How did that pay off? The author doesn't go there, but I'd say it helped keep the reporters focused on the court, rather than larger business issues such as the Nets' much-promoted but hard-to-get $15 tickets, which are now gone.

While Appleman notes that Nets' "branding sought to globalize a largely tristate product while increasing a tristate presence," he doesn't examine how many New Jersey fans stuck with the team or where new ones came from.

And though the New York Times offered a regular feature on Nets fans and numerous fans are vocal on websites like NetsDaily, Appleman has little to say about team followers. He goes to a high school game in Brooklyn, but doesn't ask the kids what they think of the Nets.

Regarding off-the-court action, he appropriately disses the team's BrooklyKnight mascot but doesn't mention the very good "Brooklyn (Something to Lean On)" anthem by John Forte.

Appleman uses Jay-Z reasonably well to explain how hip-hop and the NBA have become intertwined--and quotes a Prokhorov deputy about how she wanted a BK for the team's logo while Jay-Z prevailed with a B. But he doesn't look hard at how Jay-Z was used by the team as a marketing device.

The Barnum-esque Yormark, a notably driven guy responsible for recruiting Barclays as a sponsor, is mostly ignored. We learn a lot more about coach Johnson, who's described as having "came off as packaged."

Appleman offers no skepticism regarding Yormark's efforts--which led to a tongue-lashing on WFAN-- to keep the team's nationally televised home opener against the Knicks on schedule despite the impact of Superstorm Sandy.

The arena and the assessment

Though Appleman declares the Barclays Center a jewel, he grouses about the seating for "secondary media" while ignoring the building's backstory: a design by celebrated architect Frank Gehry, a low-cost substitute from Ellerbe Becket, and a dramatic, last-minute  rusted-metal "skin" by SHoP, which has been highly praised.

Near the end of the book, he takes a stab at a reckoning:
"The nostalgic cynic says the Dodgers were religion in Brooklyn and the big-business Nets will never tug at the borough's heartstrings that way. The optimist says there have always been players, owners, and affiliated businesses in professional sports. The realist wonders if the Nets can thrive somewhere in the middle."
That's not quite going out on a limb.

Next up

If the Nets' first season in Brooklyn was by definition historic, the team's second season, yet unfinished, is considerably more momentous. As Appleman notes in an epilogue, after the Nets' "mostly successful launch campaign," the team hit a new stride when Prokhorov hired just-retired star guard Jason Kidd as a coach, then spent big to acquire aging Boston Celtics stars Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

Indeed, preseason pundits declared the Nets one of the league's strongest teams. As it happened, the Nets, beset by injuries and poor chemistry, started poorly, prompting Kidd to fire his hand-picked assistant, Lawrence Frank, and to hear fans call for his head.

In January, however, the Nets turned it around dramatically, winning ten of 13 games, though losing decisively in the last one to the elite Oklahoma City Thunder. Kidd was just named Eastern Conference Coach of the Month.

The 2013-14 Brooklyn Nets should make the playoffs and, in any given series, have the power to shock some rivals with better records. So the Nets' second season, especially since Kidd seems to have figured out how to better deploy his squad, might truly merit a hoops-centric narrative. The first season deserves a wider lens.

A Q&A

Below, a few excerpts from a Q&A with Appleman by Matt Spolar of the Brooklyn Paper (and Brooklyn Daily):
MS: How do you feel the move went over overall?
JA: It was amazing how quickly it started to feel just normal and like home. As far as the transition to the city, I think they did some things right. I think they oversold the Brooklyn brand on purpose, and I think that’s one of the things they need to look at going forward — promoting the Nets but not Brooklyn so much, because only a certain percentage of the people in the stands live in Brooklyn and none of the players do. A lot people in the organization don’t.
MS: Has the Nets ownership done the right things to make the team a success in Brooklyn?
JA: I think whether or not they did things correctly is still a question that in some ways is waiting to be answered if they build a practice facility in Brooklyn. Then, if players move to Brooklyn it becomes more of this Brooklyn entity as opposed to being something where they practice in New Jersey and then they commute to work here.
Appleman is presenting Brooklyn Bounce with readings tonight at BookCourt in Cobble Hill and tomorrow at RJ Julia in Madison, CT.

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