A year ago, the Brooklyn Nets knew their black-and-white court was due for a refurbishing. The court's minimalist color scheme, unique in the NBA, had remained broadly the same since Sean Marks took over as general manager in 2016 -- and really since the team moved from New Jersey.
It had also been wildly popular. Rankings of team court designs over the last half-decade usually placed Brooklyn's floor within the top five. The team took pride in those rankings. The herringbone design in the wood, intended in part to mimic the floorboard patterns in some Brooklyn brownstones, was an immediate hit and tied together an overall look that set the Nets apart.
"There was some impetus to refresh things but also some hesitation," says Jeff Gamble, the team's vice president of content and creative. "We were nervous about messing it up. We have seen court designs that have fallen on their face."
But Marks wanted change, to put his artistic imprint on the franchise he has helped reinvent, and he had a radical idea: a gray floor meant to evoke blacktop courts, the streets of Brooklyn, and the borough's "industrial vibe," he says. Gray has been on the fringes of the team's Brooklyn-era palette, including on the alternate Brooklyn Dodgers-themed uniforms they wore in past seasons.
Everything Marks and the Nets' creative team toyed with from there centered around gray. It was a risk -- an unknown. The NBA says it has never had an all-gray court, though a few teams -- the New Orleans Pelicans, Denver Nuggets, Cleveland Cavaliers, Milwaukee Bucks, and others -- have shaded enlarged logos and landscapes into sections of their floors. Years ago, one team proposed a black floor designed to recall darker asphalt courts. The league rejected it, arguing it would not play well on television.
The Nets anticipated some pushback. "We were prepared to present a more traditional option as Plan B in case the NBA was not as receptive," says Steve Vollmer, the Nets' creative director. "But we were all-in on gray."
There was no pushback. The league liked the idea right away, Marks says. Brett Yormark, then the team's CEO, supported the new concept. (Yormark stepped down last month as Mikhail Prokhorov, the team's owner, prepared to finalize the sale of the team to Joseph Tsai.)
The only trick was getting the shade right -- dark enough to come across as gray on television, but not so dark as to muck up the visual experience.
The first stain proved too light during a test broadcast on Aug. 13, team officials say. Both the league and the team agreed that the manufacturer (Connor Sports) and painters (Ohio Flooring Company) should darken the stain. Time was getting tight. The final version arrived Wednesday.
The Nets provided ESPN with a tour of the new court the next day. It looks good -- and gray -- in person. The team is hopeful it will translate to television. The darker gray within what is traditionally the painted area makes for a nice contrast against the lighter shade that covers the bulk of the court.
The Nets toyed with inverting the two-tone look: light gray in the painted area, with the darker shade surrounding it.
Going with a two-tone gray design meant demoting the team's signature black to the boundaries. Marks thought they would still retain enough black, especially since the theater-style lighting in the Barclays Center shrouds the seats around the court. "Barclays is dark anyway," Marks says. "I wanted this to be brighter without using super bright colors. This is simple, to the point."
It also allowed the Nets to transition from white lines to black, and black-on-gray is a pleasing visual.
The Nets were also determined to rectify what they knew almost right away had been a mistake: their decision ahead of last season to scrap mosaic-style lettering in the wordmarks along the baselines -- an homage to the tiles on the walls of New York's subway system. The faux mosaic was a special local referent -- something that could work for only the Knicks or Nets, something that Brooklyn could own.
They ditched it in favor of a plain white "BROOKLYN" wordmark.
Using only one word -- "Brooklyn," no "Nets" -- was an attempt to play off the sing-song "Brook-lyn!" chant, Marks says. Fine. But without the subway tile motif, the wordmark was generic, boring, something that could exist anywhere.
"The subway design really resonated," Gamble says. "We got a couple of eyebrow raises [over moving away from it]. We nodded along at that. We felt like we had made a change for the sake of change. We could have handled it better."
The subway tiles are back, and much more visible on television -- around most of the boundaries -- than they were in the old mosaic version. The Helvetica font of the "Brooklyn Nets" wordmark matches what the Metropolitan Transportation Authority uses on subway signs.
The team discussed placing the colored logos of all the subway lines that converge on Barclays Center somewhere along those boundaries -- they have used such imagery on jerseys before -- but opted for an ultraclean look on this first attempt at a gray court. (My take: They should try the subway line logos in the future.)
The Nets liked the idea of black subway tiles atop gleaming white sidelines and baselines, and produced a mockup for the league:
The league countered that so much white does not play well on television, the team says.
They also kept two corners empty instead of filling them with an alternate logo, common practice across the league. The court will be a little splashier on nights when Brooklyn wears The Notorious B.I.G.-inspired city edition jerseys with multicolored trim meant to mimic the legendary rapper's Coogi sweaters. (Those jerseys will be white this season, the team says. They were black last season.) That trim, which the teams calls "Brooklyn Camo," will ring some of the boundaries. The team may plop their Biggie-inspired tilted-crown alternate logo onto the city edition court that will accompany the jerseys this season, though that has not been finalized, team officials say. That court will be identical to the main one -- gray-on-gray -- in every other way, the team says.
(Coogi sued the Nets earlier this year, accusing the team of copyright violations. The team and the league have said the suit has no merit.)
The other big change: enlarging the center-court logo, a basketball with a "B" inside of it," and eliminating the words -- "Brooklyn, New York" -- that had encircled previous versions. Team officials feel the Nets have been in Brooklyn long enough now that the "B" alone has cachet. Marks prefers simplicity.
"You are going to see that on a lot of merchandise this year," Marks says.
They experimented with other versions of the ball -- gray laces, gray interior, gray "B" -- but concluded the standard black-and-white still worked best.
"It didn't pop as much," Marks says.
The guess here: The court will be popular -- proof you can find radical design concepts that aren't garish or cartoonish.