Dec 11 2012 4:26PM

Who Runs New York?


Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

New York City has always been a two-team town. In baseball, there’s the Yankees and Mets; in football, the Giants and Jets; in hockey, Rangers and Islanders. When you’re in a town as big as New York, the lines have to be drawn, even inside city limits. For the first time, Big Apple fans will have a choice in NBA basketball fandom with the Knicks and Nets.

Like every intracity rivalry, there’s always the incumbent with the deep roots and (usually) a history of winning, followed by the arrival of upstart franchise, spurred by the sport’s popularity and the city’s insatiable thirst for sports. The Yankees, Giants and Rangers rule their respective sports in team paraphernalia representation on the crowded sidewalks, subways and elevators, with the underdog Mets, Jets and Islanders gear playing second fiddle at the local Modell’s. Diehard sports fans in New York identify with their allegiances; the team you roll with is as important as which part of the city you live in, which train you take, which pizza spot is your favorite (let’s not get started on that).

The Knicks have a head start in the New York hoops scene, 67 seasons and two championships to be precise. They also play close to the heart of the city (along with the Rangers, the only pro team that plays in Manhattan) in Madison Square Garden, an arena often revered as the “Mecca of Basketball” to hoopheads, with Spike Lee (who ironically grew up in the Fort Greene neighborhood that is a short walk to where the Nets reside) and a revolving door of A-listers gracing their presence courtside.

The Nets, when they toiled across a river that might as well be an ocean, played the role of quasi-rivals. Even when they found success with trips to the Finals in ’02 and ’03, they still paled in comparison to the Knicks. Now they find themselves across two rivers (Hudson and East) in a borough that is quickly winning cool points from New Yorkers and visitors alike, playing in the spankin’ new Barclays Center that was christened by none other than one of Brooklyn’s most famous sons and Nets part owner (hey, 1/15 of 1 percent counts!), Jay-Z.

As much as the two franchises are quick to dispel any kind of rivalry (New Yorkers compete for everything: the best spot on Sheep Meadow, reservations to Chef’s Table at Brooklyn Fare, elbow room, air), as much as New York is large enough for two teams to coexist, as much as Manhattan and Brooklyn are still viewed as being worlds apart by locals, the existence of the two in the same city makes the two compete for eyeballs, sponsorships, championships, players and most importantly, bragging rights.

The Knicks better not rest on their it’s-been-a-long-time laurels and tradition with their restless fan base. The Nets would be wise to capitalize on their shiny new status, but be aware that cute catchphrases (“Hello Brooklyn”), a new arena (reminder: MSG is set to unveil its makeover next season) and best-rapper-alive owners won’t overcome the stink of losing.

I’m literally teetering between the two. I work a block from the Garden and a few subway stops from Barclays. I predict an epic playoff matchup between the two this spring. Winner runs the town.

This is part of the A-Z feature in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue.