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Back to the Future

A talented, championship-caliber sports team in the heart of Brooklyn? No, it’s not nostalgia. Developer Bruce Ratner is angling to bring a basketball team to a Frank Gehry-designed arena on Atlantic Avenue. Good-bye, Dodgers. Hello, Nets.

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“The Dodgers, the Dodgers, the Dodgers,” Bruce Ratner says, his voice mixed with affection and weariness. He’s talking about the baseball team that once anchored Brooklyn’s major-city aspirations and now anchors Brooklyn in the past. “That’s nice nostalgia, but we have to get beyond that. In a metaphorical way, we have to get over the Dodgers. That’s important. Because that talk represents the way Brooklyn used to be. And how one talks about the New Brooklyn is very important.”

The New Brooklyn. Get used to that phrase, because the momentum behind it is only getting stronger. If it happens—or, rather, when it happens—no one’s going to be more responsible than Bruce Ratner. Which is sort of ironic, considering how nearly invisible the press-shy developer of some of the most audacious commercial projects in downtown Brooklyn has been, even while establishing himself as a critical force in the borough’s renaissance of the past fifteen years.

Ratner has devoted his life to a vision, essentially that Brooklyn need no longer act as a living museum for your grandfather’s memories of spaldeens, stickball, and Ebbets Field on a July afternoon. Unless you’re talking the Cyclones, baseball’s pretty much a memory, too. Yes, only six years ago, then–borough president Howard Golden and then-congressman Chuck Schumer were talking about luring the Bums back from Chavez Ravine. Ratner’s never been under any such illusion. But for him, this does not mean the death of a dream. Only a reincarnation.

“Basketball is the right thing for Brooklyn now,” Ratner says firmly. “Just as baseball was the right thing when the Dodgers started up more than a century ago.”

This is the Eastern Conference champion New Jersey Nets that Ratner, the president of Forest City Ratner Companies, has in mind—or, soon, if Ratner has his way, the Brooklyn Nets. The team would play its home games in a spectacular arena designed by Frank Gehry, the architect who created the enviable Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain. This arena would rise from a platform constructed over the Long Island Rail Road yards on Atlantic Avenue, a short stroll from the late-night halal chicken joints favored by Syrian gypsy cabbies.

Yes, it sounds like a fantasy. There are lots of reasons it might be. For starters, New Jersey isn’t likely to want to give up its champs now that they’re finally something other than a league laughingstock. Just one of the people lining up to stop Ratner is named Jon Corzine, he of the $300 million in personal wealth and the seat in the United States Senate. Then there’s Charles Wang, the Computer Associates founder, who already owns the New York Islanders and has a stadium where the Nets could play, the Nassau Coliseum.

Besides, no one has been able to get a major-league sports facility built in New York since the sixties. And everyone’s tried—the Mets, the Jets, the Yankees. George Steinbrenner couldn’t do it, not with Rudy Giuliani, as much a Yankee at heart as Derek Jeter, in Gracie Mansion for eight years during a historic economic boom. Brooklyn has been rolling its collective eyes at Ratner’s schemes for years (see MetroTech, the Atlantic Center shopping mall, and the under-construction Atlantic Terminal office-retail complex), yet he’s scarcely missed on one yet. No wonder one prominent Brooklyn-bred businessman is so bullish on the plan.

“Bruce Ratner believes that Brooklyn can be a great city. Yes, city,” says this sometime associate. “Ratner believes this in the year 2003, which some people might find humorous. But in the year 2012, if he’s able to do what he wants to do, then people will say, ‘Hey, remember 2003, when all of this seemed crazy?’ He has 8.2 million square feet of prime real estate in downtown Brooklyn connected to the biggest subway and commuter-rail hub in New York. In that 8.2 million square feet, you’re going to see a new basketball arena, designed by Frank Gehry, the rest commercial real estate and housing. What you’ll see there is not typical Brooklyn brownstones. There’s a skyline to this. This is the future. This is Robert Moses. This is Levittown.”

“Even in my own office, they thought I was absolutely crazy,” says Ratner, who along with the other two investment groups submitted bids two weeks ago. A decision can come anytime from next week to three months from now, insiders say. “My lawyers thought I was crazy. But we have a decent shot. We may not get it. But I’ll tell you, no one ever thought I would get this far.”

The skepticism is understandable. Typically, it’s not easy to carry off a pro team to a neighboring market. But then, the Nets have never been typical.

The Nets were first the New Jersey Americans in 1967, an original franchise of the freewheeling, if short-lived, American Basketball Association. They moved to Nassau County in 1968 and rechristened themselves the New York Nets. On Long Island, the team established itself as both a high-wire act and a powerhouse, thanks in large part to Julius “Dr. J” Erving, who played his most gravity-defying games for the Nets back when the ball was tricolored and the home court was the Nassau Coliseum. Then, in 1976, the struggling ABA merged with—in essence, succumbed to—the mighty NBA. The next year, the Nets again hopped a couple of boroughs and two rivers and landed back in New Jersey. There, they attempted to build a new fan base in the recently constructed, and quite sterile, Brendan Byrne (now Continental Airlines) Arena, across the parking lot from Giants Stadium in the swampland of East Rutherford.

As a Jersey institution, the Nets never quite clicked. They began losing games—often in the secluded privacy of a half-filled arena—and, worse, their identity. Twice, they changed uniforms, and they very nearly changed names, to the, ahem, Swamp Dragons. Salvation supposedly arrived in 1998, when a new ownership group headed by two do-gooder-type real-estate moguls, Lewis Katz and Ray Chambers, bought the franchise. Soon, they announced plans to build a sparkling new $355 million arena in Newark’s dire downtown that would feature all the skyboxes and luxuries needed to pay the modern NBA’s eight-figure player salaries.

The Newark plan was a variation on the very nineties build-it-and-they-will-come concept of urban renewal, a notion that swept the country after new ballparks in Baltimore and Cleveland reinvigorated once-desolate urban cores. But Newark has never quite materialized.

“The New Jersey market has not been one that they’ve been able to ignite,” says sports economist Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College, a leading authority on the economic impact for cities of stadium construction. “The Nets have had a very good team for a couple of years now, but I know a lot of people in Manhattan who still talk about going out to Nets games almost as if they’re going to Philadelphia. I’m not sure Newark wouldn’t be worse. I don’t see either of the New Jersey options. The market there just doesn’t have the same cachet that Brooklyn would have.”

The Nets themselves did their part. Once the team traded for star point guard Jason Kidd in 2001, they marched to consecutive conference championships. But even success failed to push the Nets into the black, as they continued to attract some of the smallest crowds in the league. Worse, the new commitment to winning came at a price. This past summer, the team committed $125 million over the next six years to lock down two players alone—Kidd and former All-Star center Alonzo Mourning.

And the ownership had grown vastly more complicated following a 1999 merger with, of all people, George Steinbrenner. At the time, Steinbrenner was planning his own cable channel, the YES Network, to broadcast Yankees games. The Boss, however, needed winter programming. Soon, the Boss and the Nets and even hockey’s New Jersey Devils were squeezed shoulder to shoulder into an ungainly entity known as YankeeNets. In the days of corporate synergy, the idea sounded intriguing, in an AOL Time Warner sort of way.

And it worked out just about as well. The personality clashes between the blustery Steinbrenner and the quiet, philanthropic Chambers and Katz are said to have been pronounced. There were reported tussles over the network and team management. By this past summer, it appeared, everyone wanted out.


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