Right after the final buzzer sounded on Game 7 between the Milwaukee Bucks and the Nets during the N.B.A.’s Eastern Conference semifinals last spring, Giovannie Cruz had to leave his house in Elizabeth, N.J., and go to a nearby park. Cruz, an avowed Nets fan for most of his 39 years, had watched the game with his 4-year-old son and “acted like a lunatic” until the end, when the Nets lost in heartbreaking fashion.
“I literally walked around that park for almost an hour from the sheer disappointment,” Cruz said. “I didn’t want my son to see me too animated and use too much colorful language.”
Last season was supposed to be the year, the season when the Nets and their fans — both the long suffering and the newcomers — would no longer be an afterthought in the N.B.A. The last time a pro sports team from Brooklyn won a championship, Jackie Robinson was wearing a uniform for the Dodgers in Major League Baseball. It was 1955.
But there was more at stake for the Nets last season than simply winning a championship. In a city dominated by Knicks fans, a title could have allowed the Nets to plant a basketball-shaped flag (and raise a banner) in their efforts to shift the balance of power away from Madison Square Garden and put Knicks fans in their place. Just ask one of the Nets’ most prominent backers, the mayor of New York.
“I really feel like this is the final act in the renaissance of Brooklyn and giving Brooklyn its rightful place in the world, and that has tremendous importance for the city going forward,” Mayor Bill de Blasio, a longtime Brooklyn resident before his 2014 inauguration, said in an interview before Game 3 of the semifinals series, when the Nets were up 2-0 and a championship run seemed inevitable.
The renaissance will have to wait. This summer, the Nets retooled their roster, somehow managing to add talent to one of the best on-paper assemblies in N.B.A. history. With veterans like Patty Mills and Paul Millsap now coming off the bench and healthy versions of Kevin Durant and James Harden ready to take the floor, the expectations for the Nets will be sky high. That’s true even if Kyrie Irving, barred from games until he gets vaccinated, doesn’t play for a while. But if the Nets don’t win at least one ring, this era most likely will be considered one of the biggest flops ever — and the Nets will have blown their best chance to cut into the suddenly resurgent Knicks’ hold on the city.
“We don’t want to be just the most popular N.B.A. team in New York City,” John Abbamondi, the chief executive of the Nets, said in an interview at Barclays before that Game 7. “We want to be a global sporting icon on the level of a Real Madrid or Barcelona. That’s our aspiration.”
Nine years ago, the Nets played their first season in Brooklyn, after being in New Jersey since 1977 following the merger with the A.B.A. The team had some success with the fast-paced teams of Jason Kidd, Richard Jefferson and Kenyon Martin in the early 2000s, but it spent most of its history in the basketball wilderness, rarely attracting stars or playing in important games.
“It was kind of rough at that time,” said Trenton Hassell, a guard who ended his career with the Nets in New Jersey from 2008 to 2010. “We had true fans still coming, but we were doing a lot of losing so that was tough.”
Moving to Brooklyn was a new start on many levels. They had a shiny new arena, new branding and a spotlight-grabbing minority owner in Jay-Z, who was often on the sidelines with his megastar wife, Beyoncé.
Old and new Nets fans are blending and forging a new collective identity. The cheers at Barclays Center are often most prominent from 96 or so fans who sit in Section 114. The die-hards there, called the Brooklyn Brigades, are sponsored by the team and are known for their creative chants. That’s a far cry from the early days in Brooklyn, when rival fans often outnumbered those of the Nets and Barclays had middling attendance overall.
Richard Bearak has been a Nets fan since the 1970s and was at the championship in 1976. He’s the director of land use for Eric Adams, who is the Brooklyn borough president and the Democratic nominee for mayor of New York City. When Barclays first opened to the public, Bearak said, the arena was a “tourist attraction” that drew fans of winning, opposing teams.
“A third of the crowd could have been supporting Golden State,” Bearak, 63, said. “At Madison Square Garden, it’s really hard to be a fan of another team and expect to be there in droves.”
When the Nets first arrived from the Meadowlands in 2012, they did so as an interloper in some eyes. First, there were the fans in New Jersey who resented losing their team. And in Brooklyn, there were those who believed Barclays, which was part of a $6 billion commercial and residential redevelopment, would do more harm to the area than good — particularly with concerns about gentrification and congestion.
A 2014 study by The New York Times based on Facebook data showed that after two seasons in Brooklyn, the Knicks were the more popular team in every New York City ZIP code, except the neighborhoods surrounding Barclays — in part because of the new residents who had moved to the remade downtown area. In response, the Village Voice referred to the Nets as “Gentrification’s Team.”
“We didn’t have a fan base for New York or Brooklyn at all,” said Irina Pavlova, then a top executive with the company of the team’s owner at the time, Mikhail Prokhorov. “It was zero. It was starting from scratch, especially in a city like New York, where the Knicks are such an institution.”
Pavlova said the franchise focused on using “Brooklyn” as the main calling card to recruit new fans instead of the team name, as other franchises do. The fruits of that marketing effort can still be seen today, when the most common team chant is a drawn out “Broooooklyn!”
“That was done to appeal to the residents of the borough since they didn’t have a team to root for,” Pavlova said.
The people cheering for the Nets these days can generally be placed in four boxes. 1. Fans since the Nets were in the A.B.A. and playing in Long Island, like Bearak. 2. New Jersey-era fans like Cruz. 3. New, Brooklyn-era fans. 4. Those who root for specific stars, no matter their team.
That last group is the hardest to track and may be the most crucial for the future of the Nets in the N.B.A., where star players are more influential than in other team sports. Irving, Durant and Harden brought in an uncertain number of transient fans. In the first and second halves of last season, the A-list trio had three of the league’s 10 highest selling jerseys.
Dawn Risueno, 53, a lifelong Brooklyn resident, became a Nets fan in 1990 because her ex-boyfriend preferred them over the Knicks.
She has spent several years following the team across the country as part of an annual road trip. She converted her sports-agnostic husband of 18 years to the cause, and brought along her two children and seven grandchildren.
“They didn’t have a choice in the matter,” Risueno said of her children and grandchildren. “Since they came literally out of the womb, I’ve had them in Nets outfits.”
Bobby Edemeka, 46, a portfolio manager who was born and raised in Brooklyn, said he used to follow players instead of teams. But the Nets’ relocation to his hometown instilled pride, and Edemeka founded the Brooklyn Brigades group, which was unofficial until the Nets began sponsoring it in 2018. (Edemeka used to buy bundles of tickets and offer them for free to prospective Nets fans.)
“You can travel the whole world and you’re not going to find people more proud of where they’re from than New Yorkers, and I think that goes especially so for people from Brooklyn,” Edemeka said.
For pre-Brooklyn fans like Cruz, loving the team means “waiting for the bottom to fall out at all times.” Cruz lived through the 2009-10 season, when the team went 12-70. Still, Cruz was upset to see the Nets leave New Jersey two years later. He kept rooting for the team nonetheless. Many New Jerseyans didn’t.
For newer fans like Edemeka, their Nets memories are mostly highlights. The team has made the playoffs in six of its nine seasons at Barclays. There have been two playoff series wins. There hasn’t actually been much suffering, all things considered.
“I don’t have any of that emotional baggage,” said Edemeka, a season-ticket holder for all of the Nets seasons. “I didn’t live through 12 and 70. I’m unburdened by that legacy.”
Old Nets fans and all but the newest Knicks fans know a thing or two about emotional baggage. And yet the relative success of the Nets in Brooklyn, alongside the mostly dreary days at Madison Square Garden during the same period, has not broken the city’s devotion to the Knicks.
There is, in theory, a concrete way to close that gap. Fans go further to associate themselves with winners, as documented in a landmark fan behavior study by Robert B. Cialdini in 1976 — a psychological concept known as “basking in reflected glory.” The opposite — disassociating from losing teams — is known as “cutting off reflected failure.” The study found that fans are likely to say “we” in reference to their favorite team’s winning but “they” if the team loses.
Rick Burton, a professor of sports management at Syracuse University, said that if the Knicks remained the more inept team, younger generations in the city not yet dug in on team allegiances may precipitate a cultural shift.
“The Knicks could rule almost by default,” Burton said of the Knicks before 2012. “But with social media, 500 television channels, a million websites, Brooklyn is not that far from any of the other boroughs, suddenly we have to talk about the fact that the Nets appear to have much more of a cachet than the Knicks.”
But the flip side to that is, of course, not winning, which the Nets are intimately familiar with. The promising, but ultimately deflating, semifinal series last season showed that.
“It’s always been so hard to be a Nets fan,” Cruz said.
Bob Blitz Held the NFL to Task Over the Rams’ Relocation
In a separate deposition in October 2020, N.F.L. Commissioner Roger Goodell was pressed repeatedly on the question at the heart of the lawsuit: Did the N.F.L.’s team owners ignore their own relocation guidelines when they voted to allow the Rams to move? Goodell gave elusive responses on whether the owners had considered each of 12 predetermined factors or if they’d voted merely because a Los Angeles deal was available.
“And I will say it again that I think the ownership was very responsible in considering all of the various factors and really understanding the key issues and ultimately made a decision which is in the best interest of the N.F.L.,” Goodell said, according to a partial transcript of the deposition.
The realization that an answer like that was unlikely to satisfy a jury of Missouri residents, combined with the prospect of several N.F.L. owners being called to testify, made settling the case a more pragmatic option than opening a trial on Jan. 10, just weeks before the Super Bowl is scheduled to be played at SoFi Stadium, the splashy $5 billion venue in Inglewood, Calif., that Kroenke built after moving the team west.
In deciding to settle for $790 million, the N.F.L. closed its responsibility to Blitz and a city that has lost not just the Rams, but also the Cardinals, who left for Arizona after the 1987 season. But the league provided precedent for other scorned cities.
“The host cities may actually begin to gain leverage back,” said Daniel Wallach, a sports and gambling lawyer who has tracked the case.
For the N.F.L., the agreement ensures that a public rendering won’t happen and keeps private the juicy details of league business contained in the many documents pertaining to the lawsuit. It also ensures that the backbiting between team owners stays in house.
Before the league opted to settle, Kroenke and the other team owners appeared to be at each others’ throats as he, according to multiple news outlets, attempted to free himself of the indemnification agreement that held him liable for legal expenses and potential damages related to relocation litigation.
Now, Kroenke may have to pay for most or all of the settlement.
China’s Silence on Peng Shuai Shows Limits of Beijing’s Propaganda
When the Chinese tennis star Peng Shuai accused a former top leader of sexual assault earlier this month, the authorities turned to a tried-and-true strategy. At home, the country’s censors scrubbed away any mention of the allegations. Abroad, a few state-affiliated journalists focused narrowly on trying to quash concerns about Ms. Peng’s safety.
Beijing seems to be relying on a two-pronged approach of maintaining the silence and waiting for the world to move on. The approach suggests that the country’s sprawling propaganda apparatus has limited options for shifting the narrative without drawing more attention to the uncomfortable allegations Beijing hopes would just disappear.
On China’s social media platforms and other digital public squares, the censors’ meticulous work has left almost no sign that Ms. Peng had ever accused Zhang Gaoli, a former vice premier, of sexual assault. Like a museum to a previous reality, her social media account remains, without new updates or comments.
These tactics have worked for China in the past, at least at home. In recent years, officials have relied on heavy censorship and a nationalistic narrative of Western meddling to deflect blame for issues including the outbreak of Covid-19 and human rights abuses in Xinjiang.
This time, though, the #MeToo accusation from a lauded and patriotic athlete implicating a top leader has no simple solution from Beijing’s propaganda toolbox. Any new narrative would most likely have to acknowledge the allegations in the first place and require the approval of top Chinese leaders.
“The central propaganda bureau does not dare go out on its own about a former Standing Committee member,” said Deng Yuwen, a former editor of a Communist Party newspaper, referring to Mr. Zhang’s position in the body that holds ultimate power in the party. “It would have to be approved by Xi Jinping.”
“For them, this is not just a propaganda matter, but also an issue of national security,” continued Mr. Deng, who now lives in the United States.
The level of censorship Beijing deployed to shut down discussion of Ms. Peng’s allegation has little precedent, said Xiao Qiang, a research scientist at the School of Information at the University of California, Berkeley.
To the Chinese authorities, the plan of action for now appears to be one of inaction. On overseas sites like Twitter and Facebook that are blocked in China, the response has been muted and fragmentary. When Beijing-backed journalists have addressed Ms. Peng on overseas social media sites, they have studiously avoided mentioning the nature of her accusations, or their target.
Instead, they have sought to put an end to the questions about Ms. Peng’s whereabouts, releasing photos and videos of the tennis star that seemed designed to show that she was safe despite having disappeared from public life. Ms. Peng also appeared in a live video call with the leader of the International Olympic Committee that only raised more concerns.
To some, the apparent stage-managing of Ms. Peng was a reminder of the authorities’ use of forced confessions and other video testimony from detainees for propaganda. In 2019, a state run news service ran a “proof of life” video of Abdurehim Heyit, a prominent Uyghur folk poet and musician, to quell international concerns that he had died in an internment camp.
When Peter Dahlin, a Swedish activist, was detained by the authorities in 2016, he was forced to speak in a Chinese propaganda video about his so-called crimes. He said in a recent interview that he saw the state media’s gradual release of photos and videos of Ms. Peng as evidence that Beijing was monitoring her movements mainly to silence her while waiting for the outcry to die down.
“She is obviously under custodial control,” Mr. Dahlin said. “Everything she does will be scripted from beginning to end; she will be told exactly what to do, how to act, how to smile.”
A waiting game has helped Beijing defang attacks from individual critics in the past, be they dissidents or sports stars. When Hao Haidong, a retired Chinese soccer star, called for the downfall of the Chinese Communist Party in 2020, officials purged records of his career and waited as he faded from memory. Though Ms. Peng brings more international backing, Chinese officials may be betting the social media cycle of shock and anger will eventually dissipate.
For Beijing, the concern is that the blowback could interfere with the upcoming Winter Olympics, which China is hosting.
“They have to placate not just the usual critics in the West, but also decidedly apolitical tennis stars and sporting associations overseas, while at the same time burying all mention of Ms. Peng’s original charge,” said Richard McGregor, a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute in Australia and author of “The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers.”
Understand the Disappearance of Peng Shuai
“It’s no surprise that the propaganda system is floundering,” he said.
In a strange turn, the only recent post about Ms. Peng that remains on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter, is from the French Embassy in China. It calls on Beijing to respect its commitments to combating violence against women. But the seemingly curated comments on the post accused France of meddling in China’s affairs. Along similar lines, some Chinese journalists took to Western social media sites to question the motives of those who expressed concern about Ms. Peng.
“Can any girl fake such sunny smile under pressure? Those who suspect Peng Shuai is under duress, how dark they must be inside,” Hu Xijin, the editor of the nationalist Global Times tabloid, wrote on Twitter.
The narrative that Ms. Peng is being used by hostile foreign forces to undermine China has been echoed by other state media employees on Twitter. The posts have done little to appease concerns outside China.
“There’s no narrative even to really distract; there’s nothing substantive beyond character attacks on the West and Western media,” said David Bandurski, director of the China Media Project, a research program in Hong Kong. He added, “This is really the best they’ve been able to come up with.”
Within China, it remains unclear how many people are aware of the controversy. On Baidu, a Chinese search engine, queries for “Peng Shuai” spiked to nearly two million on Nov. 3, the day after she posted her accusation, but have since fallen to the tens of thousands. Ms. Peng’s frozen Weibo account, which does not appear in search results for her name, has gained 59,000 followers since her post — a blip in a country where top celebrities have tens of millions of followers.
Mr. Xiao, the research scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, is the founder of China Digital Times, a website that monitors Chinese internet controls. His group has tracked hundreds of keywords, some with only the faintest connection to Ms. Peng, that had been blocked from posts and searches. Only the most sensitive topics — like Xi Jinping, China’s leader; and the Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989 — have such long lists of blocked terms, he said.
In the weeks since, censors have begun to fine-tune their approach. Some broad keywords, like “tennis,” have been restored in searches. Still, Mr. Xiao said, the wide gulf between what can be said outside China and what can be said inside the country could continue to plague attempts to control the topic.
“They know they cannot feel secure. The Great Firewall leaks,” he said, using a term that refers to China’s blocks and filters that keep out foreign social media. “Millions of people jump the wall to read about it.”
Amy Chang Chien contributed reporting.
Brian Kelly Leaves Notre Dame for LSU
Brian Kelly will leave Notre Dame to become the football coach at Louisiana State, the latest in a series of changes at some of the country’s most storied college football programs.
The news was confirmed Tuesday morning by L.S.U.
The hiring follows the move of Lincoln Riley from Oklahoma to Southern California. Both shifts surprised the college football world, where coaches do not regularly leave elite programs voluntarily, and created enticing vacancies at the universities Riley and Kelly left behind.
The Fighting Irish finished the regular season 11-1 this year and, if a top team loses, could earn a berth in the College Football Playoff. Notre Dame was ranked sixth in the most recent rankings for the four-team playoff. The new rankings will be released on Tuesday night.
Kelly had seemed like an institution at Notre Dame after 12 years in the top job. He had a national championship game appearance in the 2012 season and a 113-40 overall record. (The wins in the championship game season were later vacated by the N.C.A.A. after a trainer was found to have done coursework for players.) This season, Kelly surpassed Knute Rockne with the most wins as a coach for the university.
As unusual as it is for a head coach with Kelly’s success to leave a program that is still in the playoff hunt, his move could potentially position him to finally win a national championship, something he could not do at Notre Dame. Kelly lacks a top tier bowl victory, with losses in the Fiesta, Cotton and Rose Bowls, along with the national championship game loss.
And Notre Dame, despite Kelly’s elite recruiting (he has produced a top-20 class every season since taking over the head coaching job in 2010), appeared severely outmatched in its recent playoff appearances, losing to Alabama and Clemson by a combined 44 points.
Louisiana has one of the most ripe recruiting grounds in the country. L.S.U. has had a class outside the top 10 only twice since 2010. Kelly will have access to as much talent as he has seen.
L.S.U. won the national championship after the 2019 season, only to fall to 5-5 in 2020. Coach Ed Orgeron announced this would be his last season in October, when his team was 4-3. The Tigers currently stand 6-6. Like his predecessor, Les Miles, he found that not even a national title guaranteed long-term job security in Baton Rouge.
L.S.U. reported that Kelly would be paid $95 million over 10 years, plus incentives, a significant increase from a salary believed to be in the $3 million range at Notre Dame.
“I could not be more excited to join a program with the commitment to excellence, rich traditions, and unrivaled pride and passion,” Kelly said in a statement that L.S.U. released Tuesday morning. He added: “I am fully committed to recruiting, developing, and graduating elite student-athletes, winning championships, and working together with our administration to make Louisiana proud. Our potential is unlimited, and I cannot wait to call Baton Rouge home.”
Scott Woodward, the university’s athletic director, called Kelly “the epitome of a winner.”
Reports had initially linked L.S.U. with Riley, who over the weekend denied he would take the job before he moved to U.S.C. There also had been in-state support for the University of Louisiana coach Billy Napier, but he chose to go to Florida.
Luring Kelly from Notre Dame, though, was an even bigger surprise.
Kelly started his career at Grand Valley State in Michigan, where he won two Division II national titles. He then spent three years at Central Michigan and four at Cincinnati, culminating in an undefeated regular season. That landed him the Notre Dame job.
The hiring of Kelly at L.S.U. helps keep the Southeastern Conference at the center of the college football universe: The conference has recently added the powerhouse teams Texas and Oklahoma, and its members Alabama and L.S.U. have won four of the seven national championships in the playoff era.
Another Southeastern Conference team, Georgia, is undefeated and No. 1 in the country this year. It will face Alabama (11-1), third in the playoff rankings, in the conference championship game on Saturday in Atlanta.
Alan Blinder and Alanis Thames contributed reporting.