NEW YORK — With few exceptions, professional sports rarely contain the emotion and fervor normally associated with the college game. Aside from storied matchups like Lakers-Celtics, Cowboys-Redskins and Yankees-Red Sox, passion runs a lot cooler at the pay-for-play level. The energy and excitement that exists on a college campus disappears once students are spectators only, not competitors as well.
That wasn’t the case Monday night at Barclays Center, where the Brooklyn Nets hosted the New York Knicks for the first time. Single-cup coffee makers don’t brew faster than the league’s newest rivalry took root.
It was a historic moment for the Big Apple, but it embodied time-honored themes that are recognizable in any region and any season. Upstarts butting heads with bigwigs. Newcomers fighting for turf against the old guard. A young sibling wrestling his big brother in the backyard.
Most of us love a good underdog story, and it’s hard to imagine one turning out better — for at least one night. The Nets, who moved to Brooklyn this season after 36 years in the Knicks‘ shadow/New Jersey, prevailed in an overtime thriller before nearly 18,000 fans. For the first time in history, whether they were home or away, the Nets had more fans than the Knicks. They were noisy and exuberant, chanting throughout the game, never louder than with 20 seconds left, when Jerry Stackhouse sank two free throws for the final margin, 96-89.
“Every time some sort of Knick contingency started to cheer, our fans got louder,” Nets coach Avery Johnson said. “This is what we have been dreaming about since I’ve been here. It is a nice feeling, and I’m glad we rewarded our fans with a victory. They deserved it.”
The teams originally were scheduled to play Nov. 1, in the regular-season opener at Barclays Center. But after Superstorm Sandy wreaked havoc on New York — flooding tunnels, knocking out electricity and paralyzing transportation — the contest was postponed. The delay gave the city more time to recover and the matchup more time to percolate. More importantly for the Nets, virtually strangers on a revamped roster, they were better able to learn each other and establish themselves, entering the game on a five-game home winning streak.
While the Miami Heat figure to be the No. 1 seed in the East, No. 2 is anyone’s guess. The Knicks got off to a great start with Carmelo Anthony posting MVP-type numbers (he did it again with 35 points and 13 rebounds in Monday’s losing effort), but they find themselves tied with the Nets for first place in the Atlantic Division. It’s just one game in the “Battle of the Boroughs” but it delivered initial bragging rights and set the stage for jockeying throughout the season.
“I’m happy for my team,” Johnson said. “They deserved to win and played hard against an outstanding team, a hot team. But there are no parades, no trophies right now.”
You couldn’t tell by the playofflike atmosphere. Given their history and tradition, the Knicks had a considerable number of fans clad in blue-and-orange amid a sea of black and white. And given New Yorkers’ tendency to be, um, heard, the Knicks‘ faithful likely generated more volume than a similar-sized throng elsewhere. But they were dominated at the crucial moments, unlike during games at the Meadowlands and other forsaken Jersey outposts.
“It’s just a total 180 from what we saw last year, where it was mostly Knicks fans and all the chants and all the cheers were for them,” Nets point guard Deron Williams said. “It’s great to feel that we have that home-court advantage finally.”
Knicks fans serenaded Anthony with chants of “M-V-P!” at various points, but Williams (16 points, 14 assists) got the same treatment from Nets fans at the end of the game, the first meeting of pro franchises representing Brooklyn and New York since the Dodgers and Giants met at the Polo Grounds in 1957. But the Dodgers left town before the next season began, whereas the Nets are just settling in.
NBA fans will follow the teams’ results as they relate to playoff seeding, much as they study the two teams in Los Angeles. However, there’s a big difference between the Lakers and Clippers versus the Knicks and Nets.
The latter don’t share a building and they don’t wear the same locale on their jerseys. Besides, the Clippers have been in that market for nearly 30 years, mostly miserable and pathetic.
But for New York and Brooklyn, the Knicks and Nets, and the very league itself, everything is brand new. And based on the zeal of the first meeting, the NBA hasn’t seen anything like it.