Brooklyn casts a wary eye on the Nets

You have a nephew who has been a screwup his entire life. The guy has some talents and redeeming qualities -- a sense of humor, a willingness to keep trying -- and the problems aren't all his fault: Irresponsible parents and sheer bad luck deserve large shares of the blame. But for years the kid has blown every chance he's been handed, often spectacularly and sometimes dangerously, necessitating the repeated intervention of police officers and doctors. Because he isn't your kid and because he has lived a decent distance away, you've been able to choose when to pay horrified attention.

Until now. You're still confused about the specifics, but somehow a series of divorces, bankruptcies and court orders have awarded you custody. If that weren't scary enough, you're being compelled to build an addition onto your house for this perpetual embarrassment to live in.

Anxious? OK: Multiply the disruption, expense and uncertainty by a factor of 1,000. Now you sort of understand what Brooklyn feels like waiting for the Nets to arrive.

This whole nightmare has unfolded so slowly -- real estate developer Bruce Ratner's plan to buy the Nets and build them a billion-dollar arena at the congested corner of Flatbush and Atlantic avenues first surfaced in the summer of 2003 -- and has encountered so many obstacles, from the expected lawsuits by homeowners whose property would be seized to the unforeseen global economic meltdown, most people living near the arena site assumed it would never really happen. Or maybe "denial" is the correct emotional term. Certainly avoidance was healthier than the rage that resulted from thinking about the tens of millions in public subsidies that would go into the project and the years of construction dirt and noise that would ensue.

The Nets themselves were even easier to ignore. The Knicks, awful as they've been, are the city's team; almost no one in Brooklyn has cared about the Nets, somewhere in the swamps of Jersey, since they let Fort Greene's Albert King leave 23 years ago. As a sports fan, the idea of having an NBA team within walking distance seemed kind of cool, in the abstract. But then you remember the traffic jams you've sat in trying to leave Fenway or any other urban arena and you realize the stacked-up cars will be honking outside your house at midnight.

Turning it all into a deeply cruel joke, though, was the abject futility of this season's Nets. The closer the arena got to reality, the worse the team played. Two weeks ago the Nets were thumped in Dallas and dropped to 7-57; the next morning Ratner plunged a ceremonial shovel into the Brooklyn dirt, finally breaking ground on the team's future home.

"Does anyone come in asking to watch the Nets?" says a puzzled Ben Dzamba, the bartender at Mullanes, a sports bar five blocks from the team's 2012 home. "Um, well, I feel like it used to happen. Let me think. Yeah, maybe. Definitely. At least once. And we have their channel, so we show the Nets when they're playing." Except, say, Wednesday night: The seven giant flat-screens inside Mullanes are carrying Celtics-Thunder, Arsenal-Barcelona, the U.S. women's soccer team versus Mexico, even the McDonald's high school all-star basketball game -- but no Nets-Suns.

Here's the thing, though: Very grudgingly, Brooklyn is starting to peek at what Brook Lopez is doing and to wonder whether John Wall can become the Nets' Patrick Ewing. The team's new owner, Mikhail Prokhorov -- maybe he'll turn out to be the one clean Russian oligarch! (Ha.) Yes, the politics and finances of the stadium remain an outrageous scam, but if the turmoil is now inevitable, Brooklyn didn't want the pain compounded by watching the Nets compile the NBA's all-time-worst record. The mythology surrounding the "lovable loser" Brooklyn Dodgers was probably always just that, a myth -- finishing 42 games out of first place was surely no fun to sit through.

Yet even if the blue-collar Ebbets Field fans were somehow more tolerant of ineptitude and were eventually rewarded for their faith, the attitude and demographics of the borough have changed drastically since the Dodgers went west 52 years ago; the newer residents of brownstone Brooklyn, the Nets' new backyard, are aggressively upscale and impatient, with no interest in being cultural second-class citizens to Manhattanites.

Even the old-timers have high expectations -- sometimes for perverse reasons. "I'm a Knicks fan and always will be," says Michael Okebiyi, who has lived in Park Slope since the mid-'70s in a house that's now eight blocks from the growing arena; on this night Okebiyi is in a bar called 200 5th half-watching the Nets lose to Phoenix. "But when the Nets get here, I want them to be good -- so that the games with the Knicks will be a bloodletting!"

The Nets still aren't all that welcome. But they'd damn well better win when they get here.

Chris Smith covers politics for New York magazine. He lives in Fort Greene, eight blocks from the site of the Barclays Center.