Philadelphia, PA – In the highly-anticipated, and once canceled, first matchup of the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks in Brooklyn, no one could have left the Barclays Center disappointed.
The Nets won the game, but the energy in the recently-constructed arena was more reminiscent of a college game than an NBA one.
"It was a great atmosphere," said Tyson Chandler, who had a career-high 28 points and battled Nets' center Brook Lopez damn near to the death.
Chants of "de-fense" could be heard in a crowd split almost 50-50 between Knicks and Nets fans. There was actually booing, and not for the home team when they under performed. There was booing of the opposition for the simple reason they weren't the team you were rooting for.
"Every time some sort of Knick contingency started to cheer, our fans got louder," said Nets coach Avery Johnson. "It was a nice feeling."
It certainly was.
In sports, rivalries are tried, but few materialize. The problem often stems from the fact that these rivalries are not organic, rather manufactured and propped up by the media, desperate for something to remind us all of the days of Celtics/Lakers, or Wilt/Russell.
The fact is those rivalries haven't existed for a long time. There's no great reason for that, other than maybe free agency doesn't breed loyalty to a team by players any longer.
Rivalries can be built from genuine dislike. Michael Jordan's Bulls hated Isiah Thomas' Piston and the feeling was incredibly mutual.
Nowadays, NBA players compete together since they were kids. Whether it's basketball academies, or AAU, or college, or even pros who team up for their country in the Olympics, the NBA has become a friendship league. If you need proof, remember how the Miami Heat came together, or Chris Paul's toast at Carmelo Anthony's wedding.
An absence of hatred is not something to be celebrated. It's just that it's cost us some quality rivalries in basketball.
The Bulls/Pistons animus also had to do with accomplishment. For years, those Pistons teams beat on the Bulls and eliminated them from the playoffs. Once the Bulls got over the hump that was Detroit, the rivalry may have ended.
The Miami Heat and Boston Celtics have that vibe going to some degree. Miami needed to get by the Celts to finally make it, but that back and forth has more to do with guys like Kevin Garnett and Rajon Rondo annoying Heat players.
For the Brooklyn, and previous New Jersey, Nets, they are clearly the younger brother in this scenario. The Knicks have been the establishment in the New York area for years, but now, the Nets are in Brooklyn.
It helps that the Nets improved as a team in the offseason. Competition breeds rivalry more than anything and the Nets needed to do something.
General Manager Billy King traded for Deron Williams and banked on being able to re-sign him. He did, then King brought on Joe Johnson and his burdensome contract, then tried for Dwight Howard. King tired of waiting so he re-signed Lopez and Kris Humphries and now they are winning and will only get better once Williams and Johnson figure out how to play together.
The Knicks, under the guidance of head coach Mike Woodson and Anthony's MVP run, are the class in the Atlantic Division. That just helps this spirited affair even more to have big brother still on top. And it doesn't hurt to have agitators like Rasheed Wallace, J.R. Smith and Chandler in the mix.
And the action on the court Monday night was sensational. Chandler and Lopez should've just dropped the gloves and it looked like Gerald Wallace would need oxygen after chasing Anthony around the Barclays Center. All Anthony did was play 50 minutes in the overtime loss.
The statistics and final outcome are well and good, but the tenacity this game was played with was spectacular. Nothing can get a crowd in a frenzy quicker than hard-fought basketball.
But at the heart of this emerging conflict is what makes for such compelling drama. It's as simple as geography.
Twenty minutes on a subway will get you from where the Knicks play to the where the Nets play. If you grew up in one of those areas, be it Manhattan or Brooklyn, you support that team. Actually, Brooklynites may not have had any option but to support the Knicks until this season.
Two Los Angeles teams are in the NBA, but L.A. people don't care about neighborhoods the way New Yorkers do.
Florida and Texas both have multiple teams, but they are far away from each other.
These two NBA teams are separated by 20 minutes, but that always entertaining ride on public transit spans so many different sub-sects of New York. Nothing is more personal than where you and your family were raised.
This rivalry still needs time. The Nets have been in Brooklyn for about six weeks and one game hardly makes a rivalry. What will help is if both teams continue to sit atop the Atlantic Division standings.
The next bout in this series is in Brooklyn on Dec. 11, but the final two are in Manhattan. Maybe some Brooklyn fans should try and get into the Garden. That would stir the pot a little more.
This rivalry combines all of the factors needed for a great battle. The geography, the talent, the perceived strength of one over the other and even some disdain. (I'm telling you, Chandler and Lopez were smashing into each other on the post and round one went to Chandler.)
When you hear naysayers say their piece about the NBA, almost all invariably say they like the college game better. "There's more hustle," or "the kids care more."
My advice would be for those people to watch the Knicks and Nets from Monday night. Tell me you couldn't get into that and tell me that budding rivalry wasn't great theater.
Theater still belongs to Manhattan.