Sorry, Spike Lee. This summer in New York belonged to the Nets, not your Knicks. (Mike Lawrie/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — Before June 30, John Atkinson had long felt like an outcast.

Among his New York friends, he’s the only Brooklyn Nets fan, one who proudly owns a black-and-white Jeremy Lin shirt-jersey and secretly wishes he was related to Coach Kenny Atkinson. He fell in love with Nets basketball watching Drazen Petrovic at the Meadowlands in 1992.

From his brownstone in the borough’s Fort Greene neighborhood, Atkinson can walk to Barclays Center — his buddies go to New York Knicks games in Manhattan — and inside that Brooklyn arena, the 38-year-old joins others who might feel as if they have never been invited to sit at the Knicks’ lunch table.

Then NBA free agency started, and suddenly Atkinson became one of the cool kids.

The Nets quickly secured commitments from superstar free agents Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. Just as importantly, the Knicks did not.

“It feels so good,” said Atkinson, who traveled here to watch the Nets play in the NBA Summer League this week. “I took so much condescending bull[expletive] from Knicks fans over the past years. … ‘You’ll never be the real New York team! Ha ha!' That’s the best part about this [expletive].”

In both of the NBA’s biggest, most glamorous markets, the little guys won for once. Much like the Nets, the Los Angeles Clippers emerged victorious against their city rival in free agency after all franchises involved had cleared significant salary cap space to make a run at the top stars. On July 6, NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard chose the Clippers — not LeBron James, Anthony Davis and the Lakers — and even convinced Paul George, who was third in regular season MVP voting, to negotiate a trade from the Oklahoma City Thunder to join Staples Center’s other NBA tenant.


Longtime Clippers fan Colin Weatherby couldn't believe Kawhi Leonard picked his team in free agency.

“This is the greatest moment in Clippers history,” said Colin Weatherby, a 35-year-old who picked the team over the Lakers when he was a child because he liked boats. “There’s never been anything better, ever. Not even close.”

Growing up in San Diego as a Clippers fan tested Weatherby’s loyalty. He couldn’t find games on television because the Clippers, like the Nets, have always been sidekicks in their own market.

“We have another professional team,” Weatherby said, “and nobody knows a single player.”

Neither the Nets nor Clippers were the most popular choice to land the most coveted free agents in the 2019 class. The television talking heads reached something of a consensus that Leonard would wear purple and gold or return to Toronto. The tabloid back pages predicted for months that Durant would play in front of Spike Lee.

Lakers and Knicks fans, global armies of millions who basically believe winning is their birthright, also were convinced. Instead, they were shunned by four superstars, in favor of the other teams. The news was so devastating, so unexpected that Knicks President Steve Mills released a statement acknowledging the fans’ disappointment.


In 2018, a marketing company put up a billboard near Madison Square Garden asking Kevin Durant to sign with the Knicks in free agency. That did not happen. (Sporting News/Sporting News on Instagram)

“It stung at first. It stung because you always want to believe what you hear,” 51-year-old Knicks fan Francisco Rivera said of Durant’s decision. “[The Nets] made the splashy signing. It could’ve been us. It wasn’t, though.”

This week in Las Vegas, the hub of the NBA in July, Summer League games sold a record 150,000 tickets. Many of these basketball die-hards were Lakers and Knicks fans still processing being rejected. Some quelled their pain by convincing themselves they didn’t want those guys anyway.

“The pressure in playing in New York for the Knicks is incredible,” proclaimed Edgar Garcia, 45, of Harlem. Overhearing this, Rivera echoed his friend: “Even Kyrie ran from it. I said it!”

Others expressed happiness in a way that a big brother would, figuratively mussing the hair of his younger sibling.

“I’m happy for them,” said Lakers fan Chris Mutuc, 26, wearing a Magic Johnson jersey. “I hope [the Clippers] make it pretty far, but I think we still got them.”

The Nets and Clippers bested big brother this time, but it will take years to discover whether this summer can rearrange the pecking order. So far, that hasn’t been the case.

Since the Leonard news, Michael Pearson, a senior producer for ESPN Radio in Los Angeles, hasn’t noticed an influx of listeners calling in to talk about the Clippers. Matt “Money” Smith, co-host of the “Petros and Money" show on KLAC (570 AM) in Los Angeles, said the Lakers and Clippers calls have been about even. That represents an uptick in Clippers interest, but the team certainly did not dominate conversation.

Smith has sensed a new emotion from Lakers fans — resentment toward the Clippers — but he cannot envision Steve Ballmer’s franchise dethroning Jeanie Buss’s as the heartbeat of Los Angeles.

“Ahead of the Lakers? Zero chance,” said Smith, whose station broadcasts Clippers games. “The Lakers could move to Las Vegas, and they still would have more fans in L.A. than the Clippers. It’s generational.”

The Nets face a similar uphill climb. “New York is a Knick town. It will never be a Net town,” Garcia said. “They could win a [championship] in two to three years, but once the Knicks get their chip, it will overshadow anybody’s chip.”

But for at least one magical moment, fans such as Atkinson felt the adrenaline of relevance realized.

“Just having that and all day, my phone was blowing up from like 4 p.m. to 2 in the morning,” Atkinson said, recalling the first night of free agency. “Everyone reaching out. It was so cool to be at the center of attention once in the NBA world.”

Read more:

76ers player says team will ‘walk to the Finals’ now that Kawhi Leonard is on the Clippers

Kawhi Leonard’s power play shook the NBA. But with competitive balance may come chaos.

Adam Silver says NBA must update free agency rules to curb tampering

As Russell Westbrook trade rumors pick up, the time is right for the Thunder to deal

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