There’s a deservedly healthy amount of speculation as to how good the Brooklyn Nets will be next year — Borderline playoff team? Fighting for home court advantage? Better than the Knicks, at least? — from which just about any prediction could turn out to be the correct one. Less up for debate, however, is this: From the moment they tip off from their first game at the Barclays Center, the Brooklyn Nets are going to be the coolest team in the NBA, for almost entirely basketball-unrelated reasons.
They have Jay-Z. They have a Russian billionaire owner. They play in the hippest borough of the hippest city in America. They’re the first team to play there since the most-fetishized departed team in pro sports history. They have great hats and probably will have even better jerseys. They’ll play “Juicy” and “Brooklyn Zoo” and “Brooklyn’s Finest” during timeouts, and will almost certainly walk out to “No Sleep Till Brooklyn,” which has one of the five greatest opening 10 seconds of any song from the last 40 years. By the end of the season, basketball fans who have never even been to the East Coast will be debating the best train route to take to Atlantic Yards and bitching about the dumb tourists who make the moronic decision to drive to the stadium. They’ll have the focus of the entire NBA world on them, even if they, as their minority owner once callously boasted, go 0-for-82.
What they might not have, however, is the player to be the focal point for the entire mess. Unlike any professional sports franchise in recent memory, all of their cool is sitting in the stands and the owner’s boxes. The cool certainly won’t come from Brook Lopez, the slow-talking 7-footer with a yen for Disney movies and Michael Jackson. Nor from his frontcourt mate Kris Humphries, who rates as possibly the most un-Brooklyn player in the entire NBA, and whose own home fans might boo just to see how much fun it is. Gerald Wallace could be cool if he wasn’t so aging and overpaid, while Deron Williams might have the potential if he didn’t have the stink of a season-and-a-half’s worth of underwhelming effort and sniping behind-the-scenes comments in New Jersey all over him. Not to mention the haircut.
No, rather, if there’s going to be an on-court representative for the coolest team in the league, it’s going to have to be everyone’s favorite $119 million man, Joe Johnson.
This will be compelling stuff, since it’s unclear if Joe Johnson has ever done anything cool in his entire professional career, if not longer. That would appear to be at odds with his occasional nickname, Joe Cool (and whether or not anyone besides Rick Kamla has ever even called him that is not known to me), but that moniker was arguably first applied when Johnson’s calm, emotionless demeanor was still being misinterpreted as internal confidence and understated swagger, rather than just a lack of passion or personality. And for a couple years there, when Atlanta was first in the playoffs and appeared to be something of an exciting young team on the rise, with Johnson as their ringleader, it’s understandable NBA fans would want to believe the former.
Over the last decade, and especially the past five years, however, fans have been disavowed of any notion that a more intense, more charismatic personality bubbled underneath the surface of Johnson’s never-changing expression — the dude is a blank canvas, straight up. His on-court play reflects this, laughing (or at least chuckling softly) at the notion of “flash,” with the closest thing to a go-to move in his game being a a probing jumper in the paint. His numbers are always just good enough for him to make the All-Star team, but never good enough for him to start or even argue for big minutes. He’s hit big shots and game-winners, but I challenge you to actually remember the time and circumstance of any one of them specifically. His play does not rise to the occasion of a big game, nor does it particularly shrink either. There is no exultation in triumph, no tragedy in defeat. The most notable thing he’s ever done on the court was nearly losing an eye after a hard foul from Jerry Stackhouse knocked him out for much of the 2005 playoffs when he was with the Suns, and he only gets half-credit for that.
None of this lends itself to Joe being The Man on the coolest team in the league. But indeed, that’s what he’ll have to be — not just by process of elimination through the rest of the roster, but because when you get down to it, he’s the only guy that makes this team different than the one that played at the Prudential Center. Many pundits are predicting this team to push for the four or five seed next year, but what’s really different about this team than the one that finished deep in the lottery each of the last two years? A healthy Brook Lopez? A full season of Gerald Wallace? Naw, if you believe there’s really gonna be a difference with this team next year, you’re tying it to the fact that the Nets picked up Joe Johnson and his ungodly contract for a whole lotta disposable crap, and hoping the six-time (!!) All-Star can be a legitimate difference maker. Throw in the fact that Joe’s gonna be the guy taking the last shot for the Nets in many of their games — a fact that the guys on The Overdose used to justify his contract acquisition — and it’s pretty clear that the role of The Man is Joe’s for the losing.
Now obviously, as Jerry Seinfeld might say, The Man isn’t a particularly good role for Joe Johnson. In Atlanta, Joe was able to escape pressure and fly under the radar some by virtue of the stands at Phillips Arena usually being half-empty. Although you could maybe even argue that to be something of a chicken-or-the-egg situation, where a more inspirational player in Johnson’s position could have helped fill those seats. In any event, he will be afforded no such luxury in Brooklyn, where the stands should be packed from games 1 to 41, with only a historically awful season of some sort likely to quell fan enthusiasm in the stadium’s first year. He will face media like he has never been exposed to before, and he will have to answer to the fans in some way at some point.
Interestingly, in his brief time as a Net, Joe has already started to flex his The Man muscles a bit. When asked by a reporter for the New York Daily News who the best team in New York was, he responded “Definitely Nets … Brooklyn Nets,” a move which was so unusually extroverted for Johnson that it may as well have registered as him taking his dick out and smacking Spike Lee across the face with it. But even that ultimately proved too much for Joe, when a followup article from the New York Post asked him why he had said the Nets were better than the Knicks. He offered the following:
The Brooklyn Nets have to have swag, and it starts with confidence. You can’t go out hoping and wishing, but you have to know and feel that way before you take the court. I think we should all feel that we’re a pretty good damn team.
Instead of explaining why he thought the Nets were a better team, he explained why he said the Nets were a better team — which was actually a more literal answer to the question he was asked, but also demonstrates why Joe is gonna have such a tough time being a lightning rod for this team. What he should have said was “Because we have better players” or “Because we’re young and they’re old” or even “Because we’re gonna have the best fans in the world.” Some answer to keep the fans and team hyped and keep up the “swag” he says the team has to have. Rather than do that, he basically admitted that he hadn’t given the question a second’s thought, and just answered the way he answered for the sake of appearing confident, thus taking 100 percent of the air out of his original statement. True, intrinsic swag may continue to elude Joe Johnson.
Still, it’s fun to see him make an effort, and seeing him attempt to fit into the role as the most representative player of the coolest team in the league will undoubtedly be one of the most compelling storylines throughout the season. Hey, maybe instead of Joe adapting to fit the cool of the team, the definition of cool will adapt to fit Joe. If there’s any fanbase who can find the cool in the complete absence of cool, it’s probably Brooklyn.
And if not … well, at least there’s always Reggie Evans.