For all the things that felt different about the Nets’ long-awaited Brooklyn debut on Monday, one significant aspect of the game-night experience was decidedly unchanged from last year’s farewell campaign in Newark.
The seats, for the most part, were empty.
In fact, when the Nets tipped off their first preseason home game, against the Washington Wizards, the lower bowl at the Barclays Center featured more unoccupied, pristine black leather chairs than full ones.
But unlike the Nets’ two interim campaigns at the Prudential Center, and their longer tenure at the Izod Center in East Rutherford before that, the abundant emptiness inside the bowl at the house Jay-Z opened with a string of eight sold-out concerts — before ceding the stage to Barbra Streisand — wasn’t a function of waning interest in a franchise counting down the days until it could move forward with the rest of its existence.
Instead, the crowd was so absent — or at the very least, tardy — with many fans not even making an honest attempt to find their seats until the second half, if at all, because they were so preoccupied with everything else the dazzling new billion-dollar arena had to offer.
The Nets’ old home, the Prudential Center, opened in 2007 and has played host to a number of major events, most recently the Stanley Cup Finals in June. But nothing about that building screams, ‘Wow,’ whereas everything about this one does.
From the moment fans emerge from the brand-new subway station exit at the corner of Atlantic Avenue and Flatbush Avenue in Downtown Brooklyn, it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the scene. There are LED lights galore, and as you walk through the grand entrance, which leads into a huge foyer facing the court, it almost feels like boarding a UFO.
Once inside the building, virtually everything is monochromatic, with black the dominant hue. And there was an overstaffed crew eager to assist the patrons in a way that made them feel like they weren’t really in New York at all.
Unlike most arenas, the feeling inside Barclays Center is one of excess. I even spotted a guy shining the silver condiment bar, as though basketball couldn’t be properly played if that relish dispense didn’t sparkle.
When it comes to dining, Barclays does that right, as well, offering an endless supply of local food options, from Brooklyn Burger and Calexico to Avenue K Deli and Fatty Cue BBQ. And then, of course, there’s the sinful cheesecake from Junior’s. Really, all this place was lacking was a Shake Shack.
For the fans who finally stopped eating and marveling at the décor long enough to make their way out of the concourse, the game — yes, there was one; Brooklyn won it 98-88 — offered a decidedly different experience from anything most Nets fans are used to.
The theater lighting, a la Staples Center during Lakers games, was a slick touch, and the unique dark-wood herringbone court looked even better in person than it did in photos. It really was magnificent.
The new Brooklynettes dance team — get it? — gyrated for the crowd, performing their debut dance to a Calvin Harris song, and the team made a concerted effort to show just how committed to their new community they are, using a Brooklyn-born in-game emcee and local anthem singer to kick off the night’s proceedings.
Before the game started, the Nets’ all-too-suave, dreadlocked public address announcer, David Diamante, offered up a subtle lineup announcement in a baritone voice that even made Kris Humphries (who scored the first Nets basket) sound cool. There was no loud music or flashing lights or explosions, just names, numbers and positions — and that was all that was necessary.
That understated approach to the lineups also carried over into the game, where the arena was, for the first half, unusually devoid of the artificial noise usually found in NBA arenas.
There was no pumped-in music during game play, and the usual offerings of “Charge!” and “De-fense!” were delightfully absent for the first two quarters. It was kind of like enjoying a high school basketball game, if your school’s gym was the world’s fanciest new arena.
In the second half, however, the fake noise started up — which, in a building this nice, felt sort of like wearing a colorful balloon hat to a swanky nightclub — seemingly indicating that the earlier in-game silence was a function of preseason kinks being worked out rather than a symbol of the cool new image the Nets trying to project. If the team knows what it’s doing though, it’ll axe the in-game cacophony and shift the focus back to basketball. And that is where it belongs, because this team is going to be very good.
As for the game, even that was played in such a way that made no mistake: This is Brooklyn’s team.
With 3:28 left and the Nets leading 90-83, Brooklyn coach Avery Johnson called star point guard Deron Williams off the bench to help finish the job — an odd move, indeed, in a preseason contest. But to Johnson, who has admitted he’s been kept up at night with excitement over the team’s new start, this was more than just a hollow exhibition.
“I just thought it was important (to finish it out),” the third-year coach said afterward. “Our fans were terrific, oh my gosh. When we get even more people in the building, it’s going to be crazy. We thought it was nice that our fans would go home with a good feeling about our team.”
Johnson’s attitude wasn’t lost on his players, either. With 56 seconds left and the Nets’ lead safely at eight points, Williams and Wizards point guard A.J. Price got tangled up under the basket, resulting in a short burst of chest pumping and shouting. Each player received a technical foul for his participation in the scuffle.
“‘I’m home,’ I don’t know what that means, but that’s what he kept saying,” Williams said of his beef with the Long Island product. “I guess he had some boys in the crowd he wanted to impress while he can. . . . (But) it’s my home now, I told him that.”
As Williams took his free throws once the mess was sorted out, the fans in their seats reciprocated his love, chanting a drawn out “Brooklyn” as he extended the lead to 10.
The announced attendance Monday was only 14,219 fans, about 3,500 short of a sellout. But a reminder that that’s pretty good for the preseason is probably necessary. The Brooklyn fans will be out in full force when the season opens for real, against the New York Knicks on Nov. 1 — and it’s safe to assume they’ll have found their seats by then.