James Harden #13 of the Nets defends against Julius Randle...

James Harden #13 of the Nets defends against Julius Randle #30 of the Knicks during the first quarter at Barclays Center on Monday, April 5, 2021. Credit: Jim McIsaac

It is not easy to be a Nets fan in a town where everyone wants to talk about the Knicks.

No one knows this better than WFAN host Evan Roberts. Roberts’ father was a Nets season-ticket holder when they played on Long Island, and he passed his love of the team down to his son. Roberts can talk about the Nets for hours, especially this year when they are a legitimate championship contender. His callers, however, skew heavily orange and blue.

"Most people want to talk about the Knicks. I’ve understood that my entire life," Roberts said with a sigh. "In a way, there’s a little bit of pride in the fact less people care about the Nets. We are like a cool underground club."

Make that a cool underground club that the majority of area basketball fans don’t seem interested in finding. For years, the Knicks and the Nets have been the most one-sided of New York sports rivalries with one team dominating the hearts and minds of most fans. This is not Islanders-Rangers, where hatred of the other team is passed down through generations. This is not a subway series situation, given that for most of its existence travel between the two involved bridges, tunnels and the dreaded New Jersey Turnpike.

It’s more than geography and inconvenience that complicates the rivalry. It’s the fact that, since the Nets joined the NBA in 1976, both teams have rarely been good and interesting at the same time.

This year, they are.

For just the fourth time in the last 27 years, both teams are in the postseason. And though it isn’t likely the Knicks and Nets will meet in the playoffs — they each would have to reach the Eastern Conference finals — fans of both teams genuinely seem to dislike each other.

This may be the season the Knicks-Nets rivalry finally grows up.

"To have a rivalry has nothing to do with proximity if both teams aren’t good at the same time or fighting each other in the playoffs," former Knicks coach Jeff Van Gundy, whose teams here had their most heated rivalries with the Bulls and the Heat, told Newsday. "I think this year is really good for New York basketball all around.

"You have one team who I think is the favorite to win it all. Then you have the Knicks, who have defied expectations all year. I think it is pretty cool that you have one who is a championship contender and another who is a great, great story of achievement."

There is no Knicks hater as famous as Reggie Miller, the former Pacers player who taunted Spike Lee and Knicks fans all through the 1990s. Miller, now a TNT analyst, believes the Nets have the stars to win a championship but not the hearts and minds of New York.

"Is there any way the Brooklyn Nets can overtake the New York Knicks? That’s like saying can the Clippers overtake the Lakers. It will never happen," Miller said. "The Nets, in my opinion, are the better team. They are in line to win a championship. Even with that championship, I don’t think they can overtake the mystique of the New York Knicks."

Said Van Gundy: "The Nets certainly have their fan base. Fans of Durant and Harden and Irving. That’s great. As far as overtaking the Knicks in New York? That is not happening."

For years, this has been the accepted order of things. Nets fans, like a striving younger sibling, have always been a little jealous of the attention paid to the Knicks. Knicks fans, even when the Nets were clearly superior, really never felt threatened.

"I think there were some Knicks fans that actually liked us then," Roberts said, referring to the years Jason Kidd led the Nets to the NBA Finals in 2002 and 2003.

In 2012, the Nets, like so many of their current fans, left the suburbs for Brooklyn in an attempt to become hipper. They did bring in some celebrity fans and briefly had a mega-celebrity owner in Jay-Z. But it wasn’t until the summer of 2019 when the Nets fired a shot over the bow that Knicks fans couldn’t ignore.

Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant upended the natural order of the world by announcing they would be signing with the Nets, not the Knicks. It didn’t matter that the Knicks had been a mess for the good part of 18 years while the Nets were a stable organization with a plan.

Knicks fans just couldn’t understand why someone would pick the Barclays Center over "The World’s Most Famous Arena." It was as if Irving and Durant had violated every rule of nature, had announced that vinegar was sweeter than chocolate.

"The cool thing now is not the Knicks," Durant declared in an interview on Hot 97 shortly after signing.

Suddenly, all sorts of anti-Nets Reddit and sub-Reddits began to appear, and a fierce ongoing social media battle ensued. This year, even players got in on the act. After The New Yorker published a cover earlier this month celebrating the return of New York basketball and featuring caricatures of Durant, Irving and James Harden, along with Knicks stars RJ Barrett and Julius Randle, Harden took a dig at the Knicks by cropping them out of the photo before uploading it to his Twitter account.

"I think the reason the rivalry works now is that the Knicks fans hate us," Roberts said. "They hate us because they are jealous of us and the fact the Nets have a chance to win an NBA title. I don’t think it would have worked the other way around. Like if the Knicks had the stars and the Nets were the little engine that could, no one would care about the Nets."

Few know this more than Van Gundy, who coached Patrick Ewing, Charles Oakley and John Starks among others during their run of near greatness in the 1990s and early 2000s. Van Gundy said there is nothing like playoff basketball at the Garden.

"When the Knicks go to the playoffs, it is a level that is unsurpassed in the NBA," Van Gundy said.

TNT analyst Greg Anthony, who played with the Ewing Knicks in the early 1990s, agrees.

"I don’t think there’s any plausible scenario where they would overtake the Knicks," he said with a laugh.

Of course, how plausible was the scenario that Durant and Irving would pick the Nets over the Knicks? Strange things do happen.

Said Miller: "Multiple championships? That’s a different discussion and a different time.

"It will always be a Knicks town for now."

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