On a clear summer morning in downtown Manhattan, an SUV pulls up outside an empty basketball court. Twins—two absolute giants of men—exit the car and make their way toward the blacktop, each holding on to new basketball shoes. One, Brook Lopez, is a Brooklyn Net. The other, Robin Lopez, is a newly minted New York Knick. And they’re about to begin what is, technically speaking, the very first hometown face-off of their professional careers—and a media storm that will likely consume them all season.
Get ready, New York City: Your newest, greatest cross-city rivals are about to play H-O-R-S-E.
“These are actually my brother’s shoes,” Robin says, as he warms up. “I don’t have any of my things here yet. Luckily, we’re the same size.” (That’s size 20.)
All right, so they’re starting off light. But with good reason. After battling through injuries early in their careers, the twins put together impressive campaigns last season, with Brook going on an offensive rampage and Robin posting solid rebound numbers while holding his own against the Western Conference’s fearsome big men. Brook had played for the Nets for seven seasons, and the team quickly re-signed him for $60 million, cementing him as the face of the franchise. But it wasn’t clear where Robin, who was on his third team in four years, would end up.
The Knicks, long a bridesmaid when it comes to prize free agents, desired a center badly and weren’t finding what they wanted. They needed a guy who could work within team president Phil Jackson’s difficult offensive system, the triangle, and the available centers in the league were steadily joining other teams. But when the Knicks connected with Robin, he was into it. He’s a comic book aficionado—“I’m going to be training up in Westchester now, just like the X-Men”—and a creative type who studied studio art at Stanford, and he seems like a cultural fit on a team with aims to cosmically realign itself in its Zen-obsessed president’s image.
Robin inked a $54 million contract. That means the Lopez twins are earning a combined $114 million in this city. And that’s why they’re going light on each other. No full-contact games before training camp. H-O-R-S-E it is.
Today, on the blacktop, Robin nails a sweet shot from the elbow and a bank shot from farther out. Brook can’t match either. H-O for him. “And you’re the offensively gifted twin?” Robin asks (before whiffing on a corner three).
“As me signing with the Knicks became more and more plausible, there definitely was a lot of talk among our friends mostly,” Robin says by the side of the court. “They’re the ones that do all the trash-talking. It’s like ‘Oh, Robin said this, Brook said that.’ They instigate it.” But the ranks of observers—and instigators—have grown well beyond the twins’ friends. In a city that considers itself basketball’s mecca, where playground and high school ball is played at the highest of levels, the professional game has been marked by almost unceasing failure. The New Jersey Nets sucked, then moved to Brooklyn and became merely mediocre. The Knicks sucked to the extent that the New York Times stopped covering them last season. So the city’s notoriously savage sports media is eager for this drama: 27-year-old twins leading feuding teams that are both desperate for a boost.
The brothers seem willing to play along. “Oh, no, I am not trying to give him tips,” Brook says with a straight face, when asked if he has any advice for Robin on playing in New York. “I absolutely want him to fail in this situation, and crash and burn.”
Brook nails a jump hook. Robin misses. The process repeats. Game tied at H-O-R. “Age and beauty,” Brook says after sinking a straightaway three. “You getting nervous? Looks like you’re sweating a whole lot.”
The brothers are clearly friends, but this is the role they seem most familiar with—tough rivals, each trying to one-up the other. “We definitely got in fights a lot when we were younger, playing in our driveway, but playing with our older brothers as well,” Robin says. (Their brothers, Chris and Alex, were high school stars in California in the 1990s.) “Because we weren’t always the biggest guys on the court in third grade, second grade, first grade, and things like that, we had to be more physical. I can’t count the number of times Chris knocked me down, bloodied my nose.”
Brook and Robin did once play together, on the same Stanford team in 2008, when they took the Cardinals to the NCAA Sweet 16. But they don’t expect it to happen again. “I know our mom would really appreciate us playing together,” Brook says.
The game has been going on for 20 minutes, and a small crowd has begun to develop on the other side of the playground fence. “Welcome to New York!” a man shouts, but the twins, practiced in ignoring heckles in NBA arenas, don’t seem to notice. Robin is losing his swagger. Brook has found his long jumper, just the kind of finesse move from a big man that makes him one of the most valuable players in the league.
Brook, in fact, is the brother with the most advantages here. He’s older (by a minute). And he knows New York well. So what’s going to happen on their nights off—will he show Robin around town?
“I don’t know—I think I might go out with this guy just because I would look so good next to him,” Brook says, pointing at his brother’s goofy, Sideshow Bob–style mop. “I mean, come on, who are they going to pick when we are walking together? Not even close, seriously.”
“Should I lend out my services to people?” Robin joins in.
“Yeah, stand next to them and see what happens. You’re like the perfect wingman.”
Brook settles in for another straightaway three, which catches all net. “I think this is it, boys,” he says, and he’s right: Robin’s shot clanks off the rim. That’s game. But there will be plenty of chances for a rematch.
Photos by All photos by Ike Edeani