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Only five players who were with the team at the end of last season are back: Williams, big men Brook Lopez and Kris Humphries, swingman MarShon Brooks and forward Gerald Wallace. Williams, Lopez, Humphries and recently acquired All-Star shooting guard Joe Johnson are the main quartet. But Williams had to be persuaded to continue as a Net. He was sold by the arena, the ownership, the borough, the future. In July he signed a five-year, $98.9 million contract to stay a Net. The team couldn't reach a deal to get All-Star center Dwight Howard, but Howard had wanted to come before being traded to the Lakers.
Now Williams foresees that plenty of players will be eager to become Nets. "Ohhh, that's started. A lot of guys told me that if I signed, they wanted to come to Brooklyn. There's just a whole different buzz. It's great."
The Brooklyn Nets movement had to start somewhere, and it did in the fertile noggin of excitable, cheerleading Marty Markowitz, the longtime borough president. The Nets were apparently for sale in 2002, and a lightbulb went off in MM's brain.
"I was 12 when the Dodgers left," says Markowitz, 67, who, of course, is a Brooklyn native. He is standing at his desk in his vast Borough Hall office, which is little short of a local museum, housing as it does so much Brooklyn historical bric-a-brac that one can almost miss the fact that the 1956 home plate from Ebbets Field is lying there. ("Someone stole that, not me," the president says quickly.)
"It was a feeling of betrayal and fear," Markowitz says of the Dodgers' departure. "Fear for the future of Brooklyn." Maybe, he reasoned years later, the Nets could be brought to town to jump-start history. He had two buyers in mind: Donald Trump and Bruce Ratner. Markowitz crossed Trump off his tiny list because he was afraid the mogul would buy the team, then keep it in New Jersey to augment his casinos in Atlantic City. So Ratner it was.
A Cleveland native who had gone to Harvard and then Columbia Law School during the turbulent late 1960s, Ratner describes his young self as "a leftist" who only wanted to do public service law. He did do that as a consumer affairs commissioner for New York City for a decade, discovering the poorer side of Brooklyn in the process. Then he became a big-time real estate developer.
"Bruce, I beg you!" Markowitz pleaded to his potential money angel at their first meeting. "I beg you! We've got one shot in three lifetimes to do this!"
Who could resist such a modest pitch?
So Ratner bought the Nets in 2004, and, as Markowitz puts it, "the odyssey began." Neighbors of the Atlantic Yards site weren't happy, lawsuits piled up, protesters marched, and on and on. There was some deep irony in the desired arena location, serviced by 11 subway lines and across from the Long Island Railroad; it was almost the identical spot where O'Malley had wanted to build a new, domed Ebbets Field a half century ago but had been shot down.
The new project almost died when the recession hit. Cash dried up. Enter the Russian billionaire Prokhorov, a man who had made his money in gold and other precious metals, well, the new Russian way—connections, shrewdness, no-bid purchasing and the like. As a Russian business journalist famously put it, so Americans could understand Prokhorov's journey to wealth, "You had robber barons, we had oligarchs."