On Monday, April 27, the Brooklyn Nets played the Atlanta Hawks in an NBA basketball first-round playoff game at the Barclays Center, which is located at the monstrous Atlantic Avenue intersection of subway lines in Brooklyn and the former Atlantic Yards train depot. The arena and surrounding business and housing development was the brainchild of developer Bruce Ratner, one of New York City’s big real estate players with his company, Forest City Ratner.
As the Barclays Center project was announced several years ago and wended its way through local opposition and city approval levels, a first reaction was to see this as pure capitalism: to “add value” to a neighborhood and make a lot of money. Now it can be argued that Barclays is an example not so much of predatory capitalism as of outsized entrepeneurship. Ratner may be making an awful lot of money in this operation but building the Barclay Centers was not an easy thing to put together. It was more about having an idea, a vision as we say, then taking on all comers in the exhilaration of local politics as war, fighting through including many good compromises with important neighborhood and social interest groups. Whatever one thinks of Ratner himself or how big real estate developments do business, the whole thing was a lesson in why the American business elite is respected around the world. It’s a war machine. When Ratner announced a decade ago, few believed it would happen. Today, few people would say Barclays isn’t a success as a multi-use stadium venue. (Conflicts continue about constructing the skyscraper residential buildings.) Worry about traffic jams and parking has been limited since it’s easy to get to Atlantic Ave. on the subway from all points in the city.
On arrival, the scene begins getting up out of the subway. A lot of lines converge at Atlantic Ave. and the streaming crowds look like the Bangladesh river network heading for the delta. The spirit soars, the juice starts to flow. The crowd and the atmosphere is America (or at least New York City) as the world imagines it, a natural United Nations with people garishly dressed, speaking in tongues, grinning like crazy on their way to the Grand Entrance where all this humanity converges into a few well-behaved lines to get their bags searched. (How many were alive when spectators just sauntered in anywhere?)
Approaching Barclays, a rhythm of drums and cymbals rises up sounding like the University of Illinois Marching Illlini. In front of the entrance are the Brooklyn Beats, a Nets crowd fringe benefit, about 15 male drummers and one female cymbal crasher. The Beats demonstrate that even the bass drum can break-dance. Gawkers take selfies with the Beats in the background.
Half the seats are empty until late in the first quarter when suddenly masses of people arrive, almost all carrying immense quantities of what used to be called refreshments. These are cafeteria size cardboard trays piled with hot dogs, burgers, burritos, Nathan’s fries, some puzzling substances covered in great sheets of artificial cheese, huge cups of beer, a few odd Cokes. Health-food it’s not. (One’s heart goes out to the obese, often couples sharing a few thousand calories. But that’s no one’s business but their own.) When the game gets cracking the intensity of crowd roar is always a great surprise: a three-pointer ignites leaping fans, fists pumping, screaming (like the player who just scored, also doing some maneuver with his jersey, sometimes also pointing at heaven in thanks), gyrating this way and that in a great common enterprise that always gives me the willies. As political observers know, more than five wildly enthusiastic people in a given place at the same time is a hint of fascism.
The game: the Nets are not a very good team this year (or ever, even when they were the New Jersey Nets before Ratner’s project brought them to Brooklyn). But the New York Knickerbockers (I write the name in full for foreign readers) are worse so Brooklyn carries the basketball hopes of the city this year, such as they are. As Einstein alleged, everything is relative.
The Nets seem to have three tactics: in the first, the ball gets relayed side to side far from the basket until a given player launches a three-pointer. The second maneuver is the same ball from side to side until one player, in a fit of abandon, dribbles madly toward the basket hoping some player on the other team will foul him so he can shoot free throws. The third tactic is the same side to side passes until someone is able to get the ball to the big man, Brook Lopez. When Lopez gets the ball, he dances (so to speak) around, fighting toward the hoop. Sometimes his short shorts go in. However, when Lopez is anchoring the defense at the other end his height (and his slow reaction time) isn’t much help against small players (about 6’3”) who buzz by his hips on their way to lay-ups.
Oh yes, the score. The Nets won in overtime — a genuine thriller. (The No. 1 seeded Hawks staged a massacre the next time out.) I was astonished because my teams have always lost in overtime. Growing up in Chicago, I was a Cubs fan. The Cubs, some of you know, haven’t won a World Series in 106 years. Rooting for the Cubs is like rooting for Poland from the three partitions of the country 1792-95 to the collapse of communism in 1989. But that night the Nets beat the Hawks proving again that on any given night miracles are possible.
Wending my satisfied way back to the subway, descending a few flights of stairs in one of the 18 or so entrances at the Atlantic Yards stop, I was getting on the R train when a gray-haired Russian looking man was getting off. He looked me searchingly in the face and growled a few words I didn’t get the first time around. “What?” I said. He tried again: “Dey von?” A light went on. “Yes,” I replied, “Dey von!” A slight smile, the man went on to wherever he was going in downtown Brooklyn.