Hello Brooklyn? Are you there yet?
April, 2, 2014
By Jake Appleman
Special to ESPN.com
Special to ESPN.com
Elsa/Getty ImagesThe Nets finally have a team worth watching, but is anybody in Brooklyn seeing beyond the brand?Tucked into one of the far corners of the Nets' lifestyle store on the concourse at Barclays Center is a rack of misplaced basketball uniforms: white Jason Kidd home jerseys from the team's New Jersey days. Surrounded by as many sartorial options as you can imagine being associated with one NBA franchise, the Kidd jersey, already marketed as vintage, calls back to a time when the Nets were little more than an unpopular basketball team with a beautiful fast break.
Now it’s hard to know what qualifies as the Nets. Brooklyn is still the chant. Brooklyn is still the buzz word, still the brand. When the home team obtains possession at Barclays Center, it is noted emphatically that it is “Brooklyn’s ball!” Brooklyn is told to stand up before the fourth quarter. Brooklyn is asked where it is at during timeouts.
Such localized promotion made sense in the franchise’s first season in the borough. The Nets’ roster was an overpriced collection of relatively anonymous personalities, which allowed for Brooklyn to become the overriding theme. In year two, the peddling of the Brooklyn brand has advanced beyond necessarily being bound by basketball.
“People don’t have to be a fan of what happens on the court, but guess what: They wear our hats, they wear our jerseys,” Elisa Padilla, the Nets' senior vice president of marketing said. “We’re a lifestyle brand. We’re cool. We’re hip.”
AP Photo/Kathy KmonicekWith wins in 20 of their past 22 home games, the Nets are giving fans something to cheer about.
This is strange thing to hear in late March, with Brooklyn’s team having won 14 straight games in front of the paying customers at Barclays Center. There are few cooler outcomes than having the best record in the Eastern Conference in 2014 (30-12 as of Monday), or responding to a lump-of-coal performance on Christmas Day by winning 21 of 23 at home.
The on-court product isn't without its flair, either. Funky, smaller lineups add entertainment value, mismatches wreak havoc and the Nets launch 3-pointer after 3-pointer with enjoyable nonchalance. In the locker room, there aren't many things funnier than Kevin Garnett calling Joe Johnson “Joe Jesus” after another late-game rescue job, or Garnett lustily talking about his jump shot like a booty call.
“I want it to be that when I dial it up, I want her to pick the phone up,” Garnett said after rediscovering his midrange game in a win over Golden State in January. “Tonight, I dialed and she was right there, answering like she’s supposed to.”
It doesn't get much better than Paul Pierce's noting that he’s been clutch since he was 2 years old or joking about shopping for mojo at Costco. Andray Blatche even dubbed himself “Young Seymour” because he wants you to "see more" of him.
The resurgence of Shaun Livingston and relatively seamless integration of Jason Collins are two examples of rare stories ingrained in the Nets' turnaround. Not many teams can lose arguably their best player to a season-ending injury and become, almost overnight, better and much more interesting.
From consistently blown out early in the season to dominant home team -- with a slew of lineup changes in between -- it seems at times like the only immovable aspect of the Nets is the Brooklyn branding. This is odd to observe because the way the Nets have won lately might have a dulling effect on the intrigue generated by their style of play and fun sound bites. Shooting the lights out early in games has inhibited the type of overall noise, rooted in momentum swings, that can energize a building. With their play practically encouraging fair-weather fans to check out merchandise on the concourse, the Nets haven’t trailed in the second half of 11 of their 14 straight home wins.
But these specifics are finite within the construct of a sport, a team and its evolving narratives. If any of the aforementioned storylines don't interest you -- and even if they do, really -- the Nets' marketing team would like you to latch on to a vague conceptual cool, in part because marketing the Nets is harder than marketing Brooklyn. Brooklyn has been told to stand up for decades now, and the consistent response, at concerts and in board meetings, has been vertical and affirmative.
The Nets’ play will unpredictably ebb and flow, and the basketball brand has less historical cache than the endlessly romanticized borough. To see it as something of a futuristic pie chart, a basketball team can’t always sell consumers (present and future) a positive reflection of themselves in the way that a nice hat can, even if basketball itself is one of the most historically organic things about the place that has been transformed into a brand.
That brand likely means something different to each Net, none of whom live in Brooklyn because the team’s practice facility remains in East Rutherford, N.J. Players readily accept the work identity, and team executives passionately note that there shouldn't be much different about the perception between some of the Knicks commuting into Manhattan from the suburbs and the Jets trekking out to the Meadowlands from Long Island. Except that the Knicks sell the Knicks and the Jets sell the Jets. These Nets commute from New Jersey or lower Manhattan into a still-developing alternate reality, one with a circular space-age scoreboard and enormous slices of cheesecake frequently taking center stage.
A New Jersey native who still lives in the Garden State, Padilla can relate, but she doesn't mind the dichotomy.
AP Photo/Seth WenigThe Nets were 12-4 in March without Brook Lopez, but the merch is still front and center in Brooklyn.
“The geographic location is neither here nor there for me,” she said. “I’m a true marketer.”
Despite internal discussions of pushing more Nets-branded merchandise in the future in place of borough-based swag, Brooklyn appears to remain the driving force of the brand for the foreseeable future. Padilla repeatedly noted that the Brooklyn brand is in its “infancy stage,” (part of a five-year plan hatched upon arrival), and that Brooklyn is the first priority from a marketing perspective, something to be grown no matter what happens on the court. The Nets’ playoff slogan per a press release sent out on Monday? "For Brooklyn."
“We’re still saying hello to people,” she said.
It would just be a shame, then, if the Nets’ 2014 on-court success, at times lost behind the ambiguity of a black-and-white promotional curtain and a cynical big-city news cycle, said goodbye before reaching the maximum number of basketball-inclined consumers.
Jake Appleman is the author of Brooklyn Bounce: The Highs and Lows of Nets Basketball's Historic First Season in the Borough.