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This Is Not Basketball: The Brooklyn Nets as Dada Masterpiece

The Brooklyn Nets have been dull and less than mediocre this season, and may be for some time still. In their lameness, however, lies a secret: they are really an art experiment.
Photo by David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The Brooklyn Nets have been a moribund failure for many years, but only as a basketball team and a business. Yes, they have been dutifully donning uniforms and playing literal basketball games, generally with the gusto and verve of a sinus headache that has somehow figured out how to wear shorts. They have been bad—but, again, only at basketball.

Look a bit closer and marvel at their surrealist allure, the beauty of their bumbles, the harmony of too many voices yelling at each other at once. If the Golden State Warriors can legitimately be qualified as art, then the Brooklyn Nets have been sprinting in the other direction, as the hardwood progeny of the Dada movement. It is not fun to watch, but that is not the point.


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Dada emerged from the ashes of the Great War, as a reaction to the muscular nationalism that provided a pretext for that ruinous conflict. It railed against what we might now call problematic stuff: authoritarianism, tedious bourgeois lifestyles, genocidal colonialism, all the well-heeled barbarism inherent in unimpeded capitalism. Taking cues from futurism, expressionism, and all manner of avant-garde strangeness, the informal Dada movement produced an array of bizarre offerings in painting, literature, sculpture, abstract collage. The Nets can be considered one such composition.

Ever since relocating from New Jersey, these Nets have shown a commendable dedication to resurrecting Dadaism and transposing it to a new canvas. From Jason Kidd's ham-fisted sideline soda spillages to owner (and extremely huge Russian oligarch!) Mikhail Prokhorov's mysterious personalized ball drills, the Nets have been deconstructing what it means to be a successful NBA franchise. Over the past few years, the brain trust have done all they can to affirm their displeasure with the zeitgeist of the times and to violently row against the current. Their brazen luxury nihilism and lust for mediocre castaways with expensive-sounding names is a rebuke to true believers in the rewards of capitalism. All that money the looming Russian has burned accomplished no real mainstream success. Money is bullshit. Beneath the paving stones, the beach.


TFW the situation is inherently absurd. Photo by Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

To the naked eye, the Nets appear to be a maudlin team that has steadfastly refused to admit the wretchedness of the abyss into which they are gazing. In a league that rewards only full heads of hair or baldness obtained honestly, they continue to show the world a comb-over. In doing so, they're creating something unique, something mangled yet undeniably human, something neo-Dada. Transforming a team that twice made the NBA Finals in the previous decade into an exhibition of absurd futility would have satisfied Francis Picabia, the Dada pioneer who once said, "Wherever art appears, life disappears." The Nets are giving the finger to art and embracing the paralyzing truths of humanity, and they're doing it one goofy theme song and doomed 23-second isolation play at a time.

Jarrett Jack has transfigured getting beaten off the dribble into an expression of guttural bombast, evoking Duchamp's version of Mona Lisa—a defaced classic, complete with mustache and goatee. Brook Lopez, shackled high-scoring man-child, is also worthy of note. He dazzles and confounds our inner Dadaist with his adroit uselessness. Andrea Bargnani is the furthest thing from museum art in the association. He's basically a humanoid stand-in for Max Ernst's Ubu Imperator, mechanically bouncing from one Atlantic Division frontier to the next, trussed together with mismatched parts, fighting a war in his heart that can never be won.


And who could forget Joe Johnson, besides 69 percent of the people who have met him! Once a formidable guard, he nevertheless has never purposefully produced art. His triumphs are incidental. He carries within him no bourgeois flash, only the mentality of clocking in and clocking out and quiet disdain for any new world order or guiding ideology. Ball, hoop, two points, Joe's done. Thaddeus Young, a superstar journeyman, will put up garish numbers full of sound and fury, signifying nothing; he will keep the trains running on time, though the trains are empty.

The hiring of Lionel Hollins is another apropos bit of anti-art. In a league where pace and space and pushing the tempo has won the day, bringing in an ass-backwards traditionalist whose greatest moment was rewarding Tony Allen for punching O.J. Mayo on the Memphis team plane is another ode to their Dada progenitors. The Nets know they cannot actually dare to dream in the middle of a nightmare, and so they have embraced the nightmare and are making it sing.

Embrace the nightmare. Photo by William Hauser-USA TODAY Sports

This is not a basketball team. This is experimental performance art in real time. The players are a grotesque curio, ostensibly athletes trying to win games but in actuality missionaries exposing us to the fickle illusions that constitute our sacred truths. We're lucky to have them, lucky to watch them lurch into calamity after calamity as if calamities were a boon.

There have been unfortunate signs that the Nets plan to go mainstream and leave behind their experimental past. An influx of young 'uns has disturbed the grouchy, expensive veteran pathos the team has cultivated. With the additions of promising rookie southpaw Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris McCullough, as well as former lottery flop Thomas Robinson, there is finally something of a youth movement in Brooklyn. Joe Johnson's contract is set to finally run its course. Fans somehow remain optimistic that this team doesn't have the PTSD vibe of previous Nets squads—that soon enough veteran players can be flipped for assets and free agents can be lured, and that the kids will blossom into contributors. This is a pity, but it's inevitable. All weird things must pass.

Dada luminary Jean Arp was a passionate believer in the loveliness of accidents, of the power of a piece of paper torn up and dropped to the floor. Sooner or later, someone will tape up these Nets and send them on a path to a tangible destination. So let us praise their deathbed moxie now, for all they've done for us these past few years, subverting a beautiful game with lowbrow aesthetics and incongruous dramatis personae. We may never see their like again. Until then, however, at least future MVP Kristaps Porzingis has a nearby team on which to test his haymakers.