Who are Nets fans?
we live on your computer, to the extent that we live at all
It’s the ten year anniversary of the Nets’ first game in Barclays Center, which evidently means that it is time once more to renew the “Nets have no fans” discussion. It’s not worth engaging with the discourse as it typically manifests itself – today’s iteration prompted by a hilarious New York Post article pronouncing the Nets ‘dead last’ in season ticket sales, channeling an energy kept dormant since the infamous James Harden hostage video in which he gave away discounted playoff tickets. Nets naysayers have long relished the notion that there are no fans in Brooklyn, a tired observation when coming from outside that receives predictably histrionic responses from Nets fans desperate to be seen. It’s boring.
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What’s not boring, but rather conditions the experience of Nets fandom in the first place, is the creeping knowledge that there really are no Nets fans after all. That you, as someone who cares about the Brooklyn Nets, are not a “member of a fanbase” as such – that you are an abstraction, an aberration, a purely abnegated self. That you occupy a liminal space between existence and irrelevance and so you are naturally doomed to live on the Internet.
Who is a Nets fan?
Most professional sports teams, as far as I can tell, offer their fans a few basic escapes from their daily lives. They promise an symbolic hope, a feeling that you might experience the thrills of “victory” despite the mundanity and desperation of your real life. They offer distraction from your grinding daily routine. Perhaps most importantly, they offer community – they are a body to which you belong, an identity you can adopt, a pre-made bond with the people around you couched in something as apparently trivial as a rooting interest. These are sports’ promises: they invest real significance into an industry tasked exclusively with selling insurance and car commercials.
The Brooklyn Nets do not offer these rewards of fandom. The primary purpose of the Nets project, to the extent once can be said to exist, is to one day become a real team. This, more than anything else, is what makes Nets fandom so totalizing and psychosis-inducing.
Aside from being incredibly funny, it is telling that the primary obsessions of NetsDaily – the forefather fan blog and Twitter-account-run-by-eighty-year-old-man of the Nets internet – are television ratings and the comparative relevance of the New York Knicks.1 When you get past the absurdity of it all, the obsession is befitting of an organization that moved, like the ur-gentrifier before them, from New Jersey to Brooklyn. The Nets’ anxiety is a gentrifier’s anxiety: the self-loathing borne from spending oneself into “authenticity,” the grasping at connections to justify one’s new positionality, the stylized fetishization of Biggie Smalls. In perfect gentrifier posture, the Nets want to matter, which is what makes the overarching doom clouding the experience of Nets fandom feel more than anything else like cosmic punishment for the steps skipped on the road to relevance. The cringeworthy Jay-Z billboards, the abortive trades for washed stars (and the concomitant karmic debt of enabling the Boston Celtics’ crimes against humanity). It’s obvious that the Nets have an original sin, but it’s not clear whether that was bulldozing housing to build Barclays Center or selling reversible jerseys during the dog days. When you wonder how it was that some fans could have preferred to root for a team predestined for mediocrity over one touting Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden, remember this.
And so the Nets do have fans – I mean, I’m writing this – but their composition is one that lends itself perfectly not to sold out Barclays Center games but to manic tweets and depraved message boards. There are New Jersey fans, predestined to a non-New-Yorker inferiority, permanent little brothers who can’t even affect an ironic home-state pride because the team moved out. There are Brooklyn fans, a sliver of whom predated the team and the majority of whom harbor the same gentrifier-anxiety as the organization itself (beware the former Knicks fans of the bunch – they are categorically the most insane, but also the most likely to delete their Twitter accounts in fits of rage). There are the transient fans, the “stans” as regrettable as that sounds, who bring a disembodied but mercenary energy to this island of misfit toys. Maybe some people got into the team because they once liked rooting for underdogs. I did because I got to meet Anthony Morrow for $8 through Groupon. All of these fans, almost as a rule, cannot afford in one way or another to go to the Barclays Center. They meet instead on the internet.
These are the pathologies that condition Nets fandom. We are fans of the team who blacked out the stands upon moving, a move that not incidentally obscured how few people attended games. We are fans who ask, with bated breath, how the crowd looked or sounded on any given night. We live with the same denied sense-of-self that I imagine one feels at an axe-throwing bar, surrounded by people dressed like Metaverse avatars, asking themselves whether they are actually having fun. Every misstep, of which there are by now too many to count, is more than a delay against the Nets finally building something real, but a secret confirmation that they never will. We know that we are alone, then, but only we can say it.
Other teams want championships. We, deep down, first need someone to celebrate a championship with. Which is why, of course, the Nets project must ultimately end with a perfectly astroturfed, Mickey-Mouse Finals victory followed by an empty parade down Atlantic Avenue. Failure would be too predictable – non-existence is funnier.
Followed, in close order, by Kyrie Irving’s vaccination status and Irina Pavlova.