Standing on the corner of Dean Street and Atlantic Avenue last November, under a massive crane (the operator winked at us when we walked past him), Bruce Ratner ponders his creation. Ratner knows what everyone thinks of him. He’s the guy who doesn’t even like basketball and simply used public sentiment for a sports franchise in Brooklyn to line his pockets with public funds and residential high-rises that may or may not ever be built. He’s Bruce Ratner: He’s the bad guy. These are not even claims Ratner denies, at least not all that strongly. He certainly admits to not being a basketball fan, though he will later tell me he can’t wait to see “Barbra and Dylan.” (He’s less sure about Bieber.) Ratner doesn’t worry about his personal legacy; once, during another meeting, he pointed to famous buildings nearby and noted that no one knows the names of the people who built them. The world is a “long, big place,” he said. One hundred years from now, “Brooklyn is going to be an epicenter of this country, and this place will be at the middle of that. No one will care what we had to do to make it happen.”
Ratner’s vision for Barclays Center is, if nothing else, grand. What he and his Avengers-style business partners—Nets majority owner and Russian industrial magnate Mikhail Prokhorov and partial Nets owner (one fifteenth of one percent, anyway) and megawatt franchise ambassador Jay-Z—imagine is nothing less than the literal and symbolic centerpiece of a new, 21st-century Brooklyn, one that’s as gleaming and modern as the shiny new structure itself. “People will know this arena from Brooklyn, and people will know Brooklyn from this arena,” Ratner says. He describes the project as “another leap forward” for the borough.
At one of the countless local public events that Ratner and his organization have held over the past two years (the woman who cuts my hair in Brooklyn Heights says that her salon has been visited by a Nets representative “at least three times”), ubiquitous Brooklyn borough president Marty Markowitz started talking about the Brooklyn Dodgers. Every time Markowitz is at a Nets event, he brings up the Dodgers and Ebbets Field and bringing sports “back to Brooklyn, where they belong!” The Ebbets Field connection is obviously vital for Markowitz, who was 12 years old when the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles, the absolute perfect age to develop a lifelong obsession with returning pro sports to one’s home borough. When the Nets deal was first announced, Markowitz was ebullient. “It corrects the great mistake of 1957, when the Brooklyn Dodgers moved to La-La Land,” he said. “This is redemption. This is Brooklyn getting its respect back.”
But Markowitz is the only one involved with this deal who seems to have an emotional attachment to the Brooklyn Dodgers. Barclays Center is not something meant to eradicate the ghosts of the past; it is a project entirely based on Brooklyn’s future. The Mets steeped Citi Field in sepia-toned childhood remembrances; Fred Wilpon was trying to re-create the Ebbets Field of his youth, to the point that some fans wondered whether that stadium was for the Mets or for the Dodgers. That is not what Barclays Center is. Barclays Center is the anti–Ebbets Field. Barclays Center has no use for your nostalgia.
The Nets organization has placed its bets on a Brooklyn that has more to do with Manhattan sky-rises and global branding than Duke Snider and Spaldeens. The venture is, in every possible way, a real-estate developer’s gamble, an attempt to get in on the ground floor of a property in an area thought to be blessed with massive growth potential. Ratner, like many a developer before him, is hoping to use the stadium to vault a city, or in this case a borough, to a higher level of Big Time … then reap the benefits in the form of basketball and concert-attendance receipts and escalating property values. The aim, that is, to both spur the creation of the new Brooklyn and profit from it.
“Barclays Center is bigger than basketball,” Brett Yormark, CEO of the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center, proclaims. This is the mantra you hear repeated over and over from Yormark & Co. The Nets aren’t the sole part of this deal. They might not even be the centerpiece.
Yormark is considered one of the more successful marketing executives in sports, which is particularly impressive considering how long he’s been plying his trade in East Rutherford. Yormark made his name with NASCAR as a vice-president of marketing (he’s the reason the circuit’s championship is the “Nextel Cup” rather than the “Winston Cup,” in a $750 million marketing deal that remains the biggest in U.S. sports history) and moved on to get “innovative” with the Nets in New Jersey (he devised the promotion of promising to pay fans’ tolls if they attended a game). He is originally from Springfield, New Jersey, but has the air, clothing, and cadence of a Wall Streeter, not a hair or a thread out of place, shoes so cleanly waxed they reflect a shine off the windows. I find it impossible to imagine Yormark, with his impeccable suits and matching cuff links, walking through Metrotech every day, and I tell him so. “I’m trying harder and harder to fit into the community,” he says with a grin. “This is a rapidly changing area.”