Life around the Nets has been surreal ever since they landed maximum-salary superstars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving on the first day of free agency. It’s as if they have emerged from the long shadow cast by the Knicks into the sunlight on the Brooklyn side of the East River to embrace the hip, urban vibe that sets their franchise apart.
More than 3,000 fans who attended the Nets’ “Practice in the Park” celebration Saturday afternoon on the outdoor courts at Pier 2 in Brooklyn Bridge Park certainly felt it. The Nets wore their new “Statement” jerseys with the letters “BKLYN” written across the front like artful graffiti you might find elsewhere in the borough, and Irving, Durant and all the Nets obviously enjoyed the warm reception along with the views on a sun-splashed afternoon.
Joe Harris, who has been with the Nets since Day 1 of the rebuilding project general manager Sean Marks and coach Kenny Atkinson initiated three seasons ago, felt the excitement generated by Irving and Durant even though the latter is projected to miss the entire season while rehabbing from right Achilles tendon surgery.
“Kyrie lives in the neighborhood,” Harris said. “When we were lining up, we talked about how cool this is and how many people come out and support. It’s great energy, a great vibe, and it’s cool to be in the midst of all of it.
“It’s awesome, too, because they’re the ones that are really bringing all this energy. It’s cool to see the impact that they have and also to be enjoying it with your teammates and the community and the borough.”
Former Nets star Albert King, who spent the first six seasons of his NBA career with the franchise when it was located in the New Jersey Meadowlands, marveled at the transformation since the Nets moved to his native Brooklyn and then scored a free agent coup when the “smart money” had Durant and Irving headed to the Knicks.
“I thought it was amazing,” King said. “You’re talking about two of the premier NBA players in Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, and then you throw in DeAndre Jordan. You have a center that’s experienced and then you have two guys that can win any game at any time. They have a young team, and incorporating those two — I know this year it’s Kyrie only — but it’s something special that’s going to be happening.”
The Knicks are embedded deeply in New York City culture and long have been the glamour team even while struggling on the court, but King has a theory that communication via social media might have changed the dynamic for a younger generation of NBA players.
“The Knicks might have more name recognition, but if you ask the players in the NBA, they look at the Nets more than they look at the Knicks,” King said. “You look at the infrastructure, the arena, the ownership, but the most important thing they’re looking at is the coaching and the management. I think they have done a great job as far as instilling confidence in all the players and knowing we’re going to have the facilities and spend what we need to spend to get this job done.”
Neither Durant nor Irving was available to the media on Saturday, but Garrett Temple, who is one of eight incoming veteran free agents recruited to join the Nets’ young core group, was impressed by the community event.
“The environment is amazing,” Temple said of the riverside setting. “I’ve had a bunch of fan engagement practices during training camp and preseason, but this is easily the most impressive one. To have Brooklyn on one side and Manhattan on the other side of the East River and just being here outside — we’ve got a great day and a great crowd — hopefully, it’s foreshadowing for a great season.”
Temple raved about the new jerseys and the urban vibe associated with the Nets, and like King he agreed their organizational culture was the main attraction. “I think that foundation is what brought Kyrie, Kevin, DeAndre and myself here,” Temple said. “It definitely feels like there is something special that can happen here.
“Playing against these guys especially the last two years, it was always a tough out. It’s a grind team, a grit team that plays for something. They play with a chip on their shoulder. You play with a certain oomph. That’s the vibe you get in Brooklyn in general. That’s the reason we’re outside playing in front of the fans. I think that’s a great foundation to have to build something special.”