MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
For the NBA's Brooklyn Nets, this season has been, in a word, new - new state, new city, brand-new arena. The team moved from Newark, New Jersey, to the New York borough of Brooklyn, which hasn't had a major pro sports team since the Dodgers left in 1957. Home court is now the Barclays Center. And as much as the move was supposed to bring new life to the team, it was also supposed to bring life to the neighborhood. NPR's Mike Pesca offers this midseason report, a team effort with the help of Frannie Kelley from the NPR Music desk and Planet Money's Robert Smith.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: In 1976, the then-New York Nets won the ABA championship. The next year, the Nets joined the NBA and had the worst record in basketball. The year after that, they moved to New Jersey and, again, had the worst record in basketball. But this year, the Brooklyn Nets' season began auspiciously. They were winning. And from the first preseason game, a new cheer reverberated through the Barclays Center. In the Bronx, the fans chant Yankees. In Atlanta, Buffalo or Chicago, it's let's go Braves, Bills or Bulls, but in Brooklyn, they cheer for the borough itself.
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Brooklyn, Brooklyn, Brooklyn.
PESCA: This celebration of borough was reflected in the artisanal egg creams and locavore black-and-white cookies sold inside the arena. It was reflected in the first boxing event booked there, featuring a Brooklyn-based champion. And on the undercard was Brooklynite Dmitriy Salita, who could commute to work.
DMITRIY SALITA: Take the BQE, Atlantic Avenue.
PESCA: There are nine subway lines right under the arena, and the Harlem Globetrotters made their first ever visit to the borough. There are fans like Margaritte Reto(ph) of East New York, came away impressed with the Barclays Center.
MARGARITTE RETO: It's nice. It makes the area a lot nicer than what it was before.
PESCA: Can you remember what was here before the arena?
PESCA: Which was?
RETO: It was horrible, just a big lot of empty junk, garbage.
PESCA: Yeah. Not garbage, actually, but much of the footprint of the arena sits atop a once troubled and deserted area that the city had been trying to develop since 1968. As for what things in this once beat-up part of Brooklyn looked like now?
ROBERT SMITH, BYLINE: The neighborhood is not that bad. I'm Robert Smith outside the arena where the Barclays Center, I swear, looks like this giant alien spacecraft has landed on an old-fashioned Brooklyn neighborhood. It's made of weathered steel, which means rusted on purpose.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It looked like a ship.
SMITH: Like a sailing ship or...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Sort of a rested radial tire, like it should be in a big giant junkyard.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: It looks cool but modern in today's age.
PESCA: And the neighbors are still trying to figure out how this arena fits in to old school life here in Brooklyn, what to do about the traffic, the crowds, the visitors from that strange world known as Manhattan, yeah, the shadow of Manhattan. So imagine for a second that you're the owner of the Nets. You're Bruce Ratner. You want to move the team to one of Brooklyn's most crowded intersections from the New Jersey Meadowlands. Your team hasn't had a winning record in seven years.
So you partner with a Russian billionaire. You engage in nearly a decade's worth of planning, and you're constantly aware of Brooklyn's reputation as Manhattan's lesser relation. You want to open the arena with a slam-dunk. Luckily, there's a fellow who owns about .075 percent of the team who can help with that.
NPR's Frannie Kelley has been following that particular part-owner quite closely.
FRANNIE KELLEY, BYLINE: Yes. Jay-Z was the very first act to play the Barclays Center. They slapped his face on billboards all over the neighborhood. He sold out eight nights. On stage, he asked the crowd to join him whenever he rapped about the ground underneath their feet.
JAY-Z: I'll be needing the Brooklyn Park to be a little loud if that's OK.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: OK, OK.
KELLEY: And to say that Brooklyn hasn't changed too much, the next musician they booked was Barbra Streisand, and she was talking about Brooklyn too.
BARBARA STREISAND: You know, the last time that I sang solo here was on somebody's stoop on Pulaski Street...
STREISAND: ...August 8th, yes.
KELLEY: Her Pulaski Street is in Bed-Stuy, the same Brooklyn neighborhood Jay-Z grew up in. Before I went to see Streisand's show, I stopped by the home of the former editor of Billboard and five magazines, Danyel Smith. She lives a block away from the arena.
DANYEL SMITH: I think what Jay-Z and what Barbra Streisand represent for Barclays Center is, frankly, success, hard work, great music, hometown spirit, sort of a let's-go attitude. I mean, Barbra Streisand is always known for being a bit of a rebel.
KELLEY: Inviting seasoned vets like Streisand and Jay to break in the arena is a shot at Manhattan's Madison Square Garden. For musicians, playing the Garden still means you made it. Now, Barclays is the scrappy new kid on the block.
PESCA: So Barclays steeped itself in the mystique of Brooklyn as borough of bootstrappers.
SMITH: Yeah, but first the real state developer, Bruce Ratner, had to displace some real underdogs, the people who used to live and work on this block. This piece of pavement right here, where I'm standing, used to be a prohibition-era bar called Freddy's.
DONALD O'FINN: It was crammed with tchotchkes and little lights and strange wonderful things.
SMITH: Donald O'Finn was the manager, and Freddy's had the bad luck to be right under the footprint for the new arena.
O'FINN: Nobody ever came and talked to us, but you can watch it on TV, and people are saying we're taking this. We're taking this. This is ours now. This is ours. I'm going, that's yours? Wait a minute, we have - I have a 15-year lease here. What are you talking about this is yours?
SMITH: In the end, they had no choice. The state of New York used eminent domain to take the land. And O'Finn moved his bar a mile and a half south.
O'FINN: I don't want to be in that neighborhood anymore, and I want Brooklyn to have a basketball team. That's great. But what I don't want is I don't want millionaires when they want something to just be able to come and take it.
PESCA: The construction of Barclays certainly caused disruptions, but the most dire predictions by the arena's opponents haven't all been realized. A traffic study commissioned by the Nets and conducted by Sam Schwartz Engineering shows that traffic at the arena's intersection is no worse now than it was before Barclays was built. But bar owner Donald O'Finn is, of course, right. Millionaire developers and billionaire plutocrats have a way of dictating terms.
Take the example of the Nets' coach who led the team to their best start in a decade, Avery Johnson, who's heard extolling the newly energized fan base.
AVERY JOHNSON: Anytime they holler Brooklyn, even though we're all trying to be focused and do our jobs, it's nice to hear that chant.
PESCA: Johnson was named NBA Coach of the Month for October and November. Then, he was fired in December. But the new Nets coach, P.J. Carlesimo, has done well. The Brooklyn Nets are winners on the basketball court.
KELLEY: As a music venue, Barclays did something notable. True, other than the first couple of shows, the booking there hasn't turned out to be all that different from the Staples Center or Boston's TD Garden or anywhere else hosting Justin Bieber and Disney on Ice. But by having Jay-Z's fingerprints all over the building, Barclays has gone into unexplored territory. No other arena has ever branded itself with the rapper. Music journalist Danyel Smith.
SMITH: It's major. It's huge. It's a pride-filled moment.
KELLEY: Jay-Z's alignment with the billion-dollar development puts hip-hop culture in a whole new weight class. His name is now synonymous with aspiration. But in Jay-Z's version of Brooklyn, the average Joe is somebody. Every night he played the Barclays Center, he gave a little speech. I'm standing on this stage as living proof, he said, that you can do anything in the world.
JAY-Z: I think every single person in this building has genius-level talent. Every single person...
KELLEY: Yeah, it's a little syrupy. And who hits the big time and stays in Brooklyn? Not Barbra Streisand. Not Jay-Z.
PESCA: And the Nets are kind of a Cinderella story, but they became good by the usual means - throwing $315 million at their top players in the offseason.
SMITH: And this is a borough where, not too far from here. a one-bedroom apartment can rent for $5,000 a month. So in that regard, a fancy arena is authentically Brooklyn.
PESCA: Or that slice of Brooklyn that plays the role of greedy underdog while raking in the bucks. Mike Pesca...
KELLEY: Frannie Kelley...
SMITH: Robert Smith, NPR News, Brooklyn.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Hello, Brooklyn.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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