What did I know?
Well, I knew this: I loved basketball, and I played pickup ball like an addict. And I knew Brooklyn was a place of mystery, danger, magic, decay, emeralds and hoops—and I had to go there.
When I climbed up the stairs from the subway at Newkirk and Nostrand avenues on that summer afternoon in 1973, a kid from the Midwest on assignment for this magazine, I walked into a passion play. The city was alive with a rhythm, a vibe, complex and fierce. Brooklyn was crowded, dense, terrifying, invigorating, bustling furiously to an asphalt thrum with sparkles and sparks seeming to fly off its sidewalks. And then I heard its core, its source, felt it inside, gave in like a pilgrim to the tidal wave of its immensity—the glorious plenitude of basketballs wack-wacking on the pavement of Foster Park.
If you had told me, or anyone, back then that Brooklyn would one day have its own NBA team—the Nets, who planted the flag of hope almost nine years ago at Flatbush and Atlantic avenues and then fought until now to make it happen—you would not have been believed. Why should you have been believed? Brooklyn was a mere part of a city, one of five boroughs composing the gigantism of New York City itself. Brooklyn had always been, despite all its complexity and populace (2.5 million residents, virtually every country in the world represented), a loser. This was the thought when Brooklyn was compared to the skyscraper brilliance of the borough of Manhattan, just across the East River. Manhattan had ad agencies, TV headquarters, publishing houses, art galleries, fine restaurants, financial empires, buildings that touched the clouds. Brooklyn had brownstones, factories, shipyards, junkyards and diners. Brooklyn did have a major league baseball team: the Dodgers, better known as da Bums.
And then one terrible day, even the Bums were gone. The date was Sept. 24, 1957. Shortstop Don Zimmer fielded a grounder, threw to first baseman Gil Hodges for the last out in a 2--0 win over the Pittsburgh Pirates, and that was that. As they headed to California, an unapologetic Walter O'Malley and his team might as well have said in the lovely Brooklyn dialect, "Fuhgeddaboudit, ya nobodies!"
"When the Dodgers left, it just cut the heart out of Brooklyn," says Chicago Bulls and White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, a Brooklyn native. "All the pride was gone. The betrayal was terrible."
For nearly a half century Brooklyn lived with the symbolic failure and seemed to slip into a quickening, irreversible downward spiral, an urban loss of self-esteem and functional value. In my book Heaven Is a Playground—about that partial summer of 1973 and full summer of '74 I spent in Brooklyn playing and observing and even, God help me, coaching hoops—I wrote of 14-year-old phenom Albert King and his pal Winston Karim as they cruised in Winston's car:
We tour Brooklyn aimlessly, its heights and its depths, past isolated mansions on Ocean Avenue, down Flatbush where decay lurks like fungus on cellar walls, up Fulton Street where the wreckage is nearly complete.... Blacks in Brooklyn are passive invaders, hermit crabs, living in shells built for other animals. Except for sporadic housing projects nothing has been built for them. It's a land of hand-me-downs.
In truth, for decades there was precious little built for anybody, of any race or ethnicity. Consider that in 1998, when a Marriott was erected near the Brooklyn Bridge, it marked the first new hotel to be built in the borough in more than 60 years. But a renaissance had been peering cautiously from the hole of irrelevance. Brooklyn looked livelier than it had for decades. Young professional workers, musicians and artists had realized that Brooklyn was huge, varied, full of residences that were cheaper to rent or rehab than anything in Manhattan—and just a subway or bike ride away.
But even with the rebirth there was no center to Brooklyn. A body can move only so long without a heart.
"The Dodgers held that town together," says Ralph Branca, a once-good Dodgers pitcher, who gave up the fabled Shot Heard 'Round the World home run to the New York Giants' Bobby Thomson in the 1951 National League playoff. "It was like we were second-class citizens compared to Manhattan. Then Brooklyn went even farther downhill. Ten years ago the yuppies came. And now a pro team is coming. It should bring back some of that Brooklyn-against-the-world feeling."
I was born on the Lower East Side of Manhattan on August 10, 1920, and moved to Brooklyn with my family when I was four years old. It was as though we had moved to the country.
—RED HOLZMAN, NBA title--winning Knicks head coach, in his 1987 autobiography, Red on Red
It was 1974, and my guide that summer was a 37-year-old ticket scalper named Rodney Parker, a jovial, hyperactive New York City native who loved basketball, lived on the fourth floor of the Vanderveer Estates overlooking Foster Park and fancied himself the biggest hoops talent appraiser and street agent in the city. And maybe he was. He got basketball-gifted, often hopeless kids into prep schools, into tiny, distant, directionally named colleges and junior colleges, and nobody ever quite knew what was in it for him.
When I'd ask him, as we scurried from one Brooklyn court to another, diving into subway stations like prairie dogs into their holes, he'd grin at me until his eyes squinted shut. "I'm a mystery man," he'd say, legs churning away. "I'm a miracle worker."
What Rodney had that summer were connections to a pair of outlandish talents who frequented the courts at Foster Park, two young men separated by seven years in age but light-years in disposition, outlook, focus and responsibility.
James (Fly) Williams was 21, a skinny, bowlegged, 6' 5" junior swingman at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn. Fly had the offensive skills of a scoring genius, the temper of a gangster, the bursting personality of a desperate comedian. He was missing most of the upper teeth on the right side of his mouth, and he had an Afro the size of a lamp shade, often with a multipronged pick stuck in it like a pitchfork in hay. At his college games frenzied students chanted perhaps the greatest cheer ever: "The Fly is open—let's go Peay!"
Fly was the third-leading scorer in the nation, an acrobatic showman and crazy gunner from any range. Along with another Foster Park regular, point guard Danny Odums, he had taken the APSU Governors to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances. His future in the pros should have been guaranteed, but nothing was guaranteed for Fly but chaos. In Heaven Is a Playground, I called him "a hero of failure." In time he would destroy his hoops career and nearly himself. He would be shot three or four times (he doesn't remember), in different settings; go to prison; lose his limited wealth; have a heart attack; fall and break his hip; yet, against the odds, survive and become, at age 59, something of a living legend and a teacher.
Albert King, on the other hand, was a lean 6'6" phenom not yet in high school who was cautious, thoughtful, polite, studious and worried about his future. He was so talented that he brought out the worst in his peers and the older adults who hung around the game—the former idolizing him or sniping behind his back, the latter trying to guide him to places he didn't want to go and profit for themselves whether financially or emotionally. Albert saw Fly on the verge of detonating, watched him from the sidelines, from benches and the hoods of parked cars, saw in the older athlete the majestic tragedy that could only come from being a demigod perched on the edge of the cliff.
Albert—whose older brother, Bernard, would become an NBA superstar—paid attention to everything. He went on to become the most celebrated high school player in the nation, an All-America at Maryland and the 1981 first-round draft pick of the New Jersey Nets. He played nine seasons in the NBA, saved his money and now runs four Wendy's restaurants in New Jersey. In a way his tale is the polar opposite of Fly Williams's. Yet the two are bonded by their similarities more than their differences. Each came from extreme poverty, each played the game at a fever pitch, each had unearthly talent, and each came from Brooklyn—the cradle of the city game.
I remember one July day nearly four decades ago, walking down a Flatbush sidewalk with Albert and Winston—the 23-year-old immigrant from Trinidad who was letting me sleep on his apartment floor for free for five months—and saying to Albert, "I bet you can't touch that limb."
The kid jumped and easily tapped the tree branch. We did this on and on with different targets until eventually he touched a market sign that was so high that all I could do was burst into laughter.
Flash forward all these years, and Albert and I are standing on a Brooklyn sidewalk in late August, across from the still-not-quite-completed Barclays Center, the arena in downtown Brooklyn that has taken developer Bruce Ratner and his unlikely co-owners, Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov and Brooklyn-bred rapper Jay-Z, nearly a decade to bring to fruition. Albert is wearing a business suit, a white shirt and a light blue tie. How different from the tattered RIVERSIDE CHURCH T-shirt he used to wear, the bell-bottom jeans, the nearly demolished, salt-crusted Cons.
He is giddy with Brooklyn love, having just driven in from his home in New Jersey. We have walked through his former ghetto housing project in Fort Greene, where he lived with his family in a 12th-floor apartment in a building whose elevator often didn't work. Now real estate in Fort Greene, as in most of Brooklyn, is skyrocketing, though the old red-brick projects aren't going to become million-dollar suites anytime soon.
"When I drive across the bridge, I get excited," says Albert. "The hotels, the restaurants, the condominiums. A lot of people are thinking of Welcome Back, Kotter, that Brooklyn. But, man, this could be SoHo. When teams come in here, they're gonna be shocked."
All around there is still noise, confusion, litter and people who don't look close to middle class. But the rusted-steel and silver-mirrored Barclays Center—apparently tr√®s trendy although, to this observer, resembling a salt-weathered tugboat grounded en route to that redeveloped Brooklyn waterfront enclave called DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass)—has changed all.
This used to be an ugly area. Some people called it their neighborhood. But when I would travel the city with my Subway Stars basketball team, a ragtag group of outcast teens from Foster Park who asked me to be their coach, we made it a practice never to come aboveground here at the Atlantic Avenue Station, a cavernous beehive of subway linkups. "I got robbed right there at Atlantic and Flatbush when I was 13," recalls Sidney Green, 51, a former Brooklyn basketball star who was a first-round draft pick of the Bulls in 1983 and now works for them. "I went downtown to buy some jeans, and thugs put me up against the wall and stole my 12 dollars." That would have been right about the time I was in town.
Now the area has been rebuilt and cleaned up. There are new stores all about. Sparks fly as workers put the finishing touches on Barclays Center, the rusted bucket that is, yes indeed, supposed to look this way, with a curved "weathered steel" exterior that makes one wonder when the Rust-Oleum painters are coming. As the Center's and Nets CEO Brett Yormark would explain, the building harks back to the brownstones that give Brooklyn part of its special texture.
Or the junked cars. But why would anyone say that? Shame on me! This is Brooklyn's coming-out party. And, yes, looked at from another perspective, Barclays Center could be a.... No, this building is just rather odd, made a tad stranger by the green grasslike plantings that cover the sloped roof rising over the subway entrance in front. Could sheep be far behind?
Yet its function is precise: a modern 18,000-seat basketball and entertainment venue in the center of town. Much of the massive Atlantic Yards project has not turned out as originally proposed. Ratner's workers are far behind schedule on the proposed $4.9 billion, 22-acre residential, retail and office complex that was originally promised here. And 2,250 middle- to low-income housing units are to be built, eventually.
But the $1 billion arena, replete with Jay-Z's Vault private luxury suites and, this being the newly hip Brooklyn, a menu of artisanal food choices including locally made pretzels with chipotle mayo, opened on time last month. Even filmmaker Spike Lee—who, like Albert King, was born in nearby Cumberland Hospital and grew up in Fort Greene—is thrilled with the new building and tenant in his hometown. And if anybody should be tormented by the arrival, it should be Lee, who has made six movies about the borough in his Chronicles of Brooklyn series but is such a Knicks fan (meaning Manhattan) that there is no turning back.
"This is great for Brooklyn," he says. "But I'm orange and blue. Guys of my generation grew up with the Knicks—Reed, DeBusschere, Bradley, Barnett, Frazier. If I were a 10-year-old kid, Brooklyn would be my team. Brooklyn should have a pro team."
But will the Spikeman be coming to Knicks-Nets games at Barclays Center? Like the season opener between the two on Nov. 1?
"My office is three blocks away!" he almost roars. So that's a yes. But in the orange-and-blue getup?
"Why wouldn't I?" he asks, disbelieving. "Did you see Reggie Miller vs. the Knicks [an ESPN documentary]? Come on! What was I wearing to Market Square Arena? In Indianapolis! When I go to Barclays Center, I'm gonna be wearing orange and blue."
God bless him. He was born in 1957, he'll remind you, the year the Dodgers left. For him, the hole is still there. But the Nets colors are black and white, so un-Knickslike, with a retro-fresh logo designed by Jay-Z. NBA commissioner David Stern had to make an exception to allow those stark hues, since the league prefers that teams have primary or tertiary or at least pastel colors in their design. Those B caps and other Nets apparel are flying off the shelves now, after Jay-Z wore a black, then a white jersey onstage under a cascade of gold chains during his eight sold-out arena-opening concerts. His number was 4, in honor of his daughter, Blue Ivy. (Ivy=IV=4.) The name stitched on the back was CARTER, for his birth name, Shawn Carter.
But Brooklyn itself is the star here. Jay-Z was born in the miserable Marcy Houses in Bedford-Stuyvesant, and his making it out of there, first as a hustler, then as an artist, to become a part owner of an NBA team just down the road? (Even if that ownership piece is wee-sized.) Why, give it up, Brooklyn!
Albert King is excited still as we continue our tour. So am I. But for other reasons. I am thrilled to see a boy grown into a man, a gentleman whose age seems so much closer to mine than it was way back when. We have grown separately but are reunited, and we are peers. It's only the great basketball that Brooklyn is known for at the street level that separates us.
"There's life here!" he says. "Living in the suburbs I forgot what a sidewalk is. I love it!" Albert points to the 512-foot tall Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, which has a four-sided clock that can be seen for miles. "That's how you got home," he says. "Wherever you were playing ball as a kid, just find the clock and head toward it."
Albert shakes his head, trying to imagine what it would have been like to have had an NBA team this close to his home as a kid. He can't fathom it.
"I should move back," he says. "The excitement, the action. This is chic."
We walk a little farther, and for no apparent reason except sheer exuberance Albert cups his hands around his mouth and yells to no one, "Broook-lyn!"
In general, however, the two spheres remain separate. One is enclosed in the glare of the Garden lights, celebrated by enthusiastic media and enjoyed mainly by those who can afford and find the increasingly scarce tickets. The other sprawls over countless playgrounds in every corner of the city, all but unknown to the media and enjoyed only by those who are part of the basketball-mad life of the inner city.
—PETE AXTHELM, The City Game, 1970
The Nets had started in the ABA as the New York Americans in 1967, but they couldn't find an available arena in Manhattan (no help from the Knicks, of course), so they played in the Teaneck (N.J.) Armory and became known as the New Jersey Americans. In short order the team moved to the Long Island Arena in Commack, N.Y., and changed its name to the New York Nets, so as to rhyme with the Mets and the Jets. The team soon moved to the Island Garden in West Hempstead, then to the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Uniondale. A year after the ABA and the NBA merged in 1976, the Nets went back to New Jersey, playing first in the Rutgers Athletic Center, then in the Brendan Byrne Arena at the Meadowlands in East Rutherford, a venue that would change its name a couple times. After that, it was the Prudential Center in Newark through the 2011--12 season.
If anyone feels that the Nets have had no real identity through the years, wandering is part of the reason. The other part is that since joining the NBA, the Nets have had but 12 winning seasons in 36 years. Great old Nets names such as Julius Erving and Rick Barry and Micheal Ray Richardson and Drazen Petrovic will pop up, but those players, like so many Nets, either were just passing through or were troubled or had bad luck.
There were the Nets teams that made the NBA Finals as recently as 2002 and 2003, but when you look at the best players therein—Jason Kidd, Keith Van Horn and Kenyon Martin—there is no staying power.
Three seasons ago the Nets narrowly missed setting the NBA record for single-season losses. The last two were marginally better. "It feels great," says Nets holdover star guard Deron Williams of the move. "It feels like a new start, like we kept the Nets name but started over."
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."
The league approved, Prokhorov shelled out $223 million for 80% control of the team and 45% of the arena, and perestroika won the day. It was a wise investment: Forbes estimated the team's value this summer at $575 million.
"I want to make the Brooklyn Bridge longer," says the 6' 8" Prokhorov on the day of the ribbon cutting for Barclays Center. "From Brooklyn to Russia."
When I mention to this man who ran for Russian president earlier this year that the Knicks will now be his biggest rival, his biggest enemy, he smiles.
Well, is that a good thing?
"Of course," he says without a hint of concern. "I am not afraid."
The beat is only one half of a rap song's rhythm. The other is the flow.... The flow isn't like time, it's like life. It's like a heartbeat or the way you breathe, it can jump, speed up, slow down, stop.... If the beat is time, flow is what we do with that time, how we live through it.
—JAY-Z, Decoded, 2011
We are at Foster Park again, Albert and I, on a sunny Saturday, and the courts are jumping. Winston is also here, my old landlord, Albert's mentor. So is Mark Bailey, a.k.a. Doodie from the old Subway Stars. He's married now, lives down the block.
There are kids playing, early teenagers who remind me of nothing so much as the same teenaged kids I met when I first walked into the park so long ago. How long ago? The two World Trade Center towers had been completed just a few months earlier.
The kids flock to Albert, but I ask one, a 14-year-old named Jahmaul Stewart, how it is in Brooklyn these days.
"People think it's a nice place," he says, "but it can be a bad place too."
"Because of violence. Gangs, drugs, gambling. My mom checks on me all the time. All the time."
Albert is asking a group of players how much they love the game: "You guys play in the rain?"
They all say yes.
"In the cold?"
"In the snow?"
A few nods.
"You shovel the snow?"
One kid looks kind of like maybe he has.
It's about passion, about the legacy of the city game here. Brooklyn can claim top honors for the street game, can rightfully say that it has more hoops heritage in its parks than any other place has. More than Harlem, the Bronx, Manhattan's West 4th Street, Philly, Chicago, L.A., anywhere.
"Only lacking Lew Alcindor and Tiny [Archibald]," says New York City native and longtime sportswriter and hoops expert Peter Vecsey. Those two stars were from Manhattan and the Bronx, respectively.
But Brooklyn can match that and raise it with Lenny Wilkens, Jim McMillian, Connie Hawkins, Roger Brown, Doug Moe, World B. Free, Jackie Jackson, Bill Burwell, Billy Cunningham, Phil Sellers, Carmelo Anthony, Sam Perkins, Chris Mullin, Pearl Washington, Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair, the King brothers, and on. Guess who else was born in Brooklyn. Yep, Michael Jordan.
"The cradle of hoops?" says former Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni when I ask him. "I think people from Indiana and, oh, West Virginia might be a little upset with that." D'Antoni, a native of Mullens, W.Va., means devotees of Larry Bird and Jerry West. No problem. Even St. Croix can claim a superstar, Tim Duncan.
But we're talking a larger place, a style, the sense you get when you feel the flow rolling over the beat, when history, surroundings and talent converge to form music.
And that was Fly Williams. Rap is boasts, taunts, threats, barbaric yawps. It didn't exist when Fly was scoring, as he did, 100 points in a park game, dropping 45 for one side, then switching teams at half and putting up 55 for the other. But his rhythmic announcement to the world could be heard all over New York City. Just as Connie Hawkins's could be heard. Once, at the Rucker tournament in Harlem, Hawkins took on Wilt Chamberlain. "The Hawk went up—he was still way out beyond the foul line—and started floating toward the basket," says a former college player in The City Game. "Wilt, taller and stronger, stayed right with him—but then the Hawk hook-dunked the ball right over Chamberlain. He hook-dunked!"
The legends of Brooklyn street ball are there for the new Nets to honor, to exalt, to feel emboldened by.
"You see, back in the day, it wasn't the park that made the players," says Harlem legend and strayed court genius Pee Wee Kirkland. "The players made the park."
He says this in a theater on 34th Street in Manhattan, at the world premiere of Bobbito Garcia's and Kevin Couliau's New York street ball documentary, Doin' It in the Park. Pee Wee, now 67, chose crime over hoops and spent time in prison, but he knows about the Brooklyn boys. They came to the Rucker and showed what the other side of the river had. Moments after we finish speaking, a man comes up to Pee Wee, kneels down and silently kisses his shoes. Is basketball sacred in New York, or what? "My legs were trembling," says Pee Wee later. Even he had never seen such a thing.
Billy (Kangaroo Kid) Cunningham, raised in Flatbush near Foster Park, All-City at Erasmus Hall, ACC Player of the Year at North Carolina, ABA Most Valuable Player for the Carolina Cougars and then a star and coach for the 76ers, had the Brooklyn thing going. The joy, the exuberance.
"I remember running down Flatbush Avenue with Connie," he says of the old days. "We were going to shoot pool, and we were jumping at every movie marquee to see who could hit the letters."
Garcia, the 46-year-old DJ, baller, artist and filmmaker, says the globalization of street ball and the pro game has made style from one part of the city no different from that in another part. "I will say this, though," he states. "I've played in 200 or so of the 700 courts in New York City, and the only time the ball has ever been stolen—ever—was twice in Brooklyn. Once at Wingate Park. And once at Tillary Park. In the middle of a tournament. This kid ran in, grabbed it, threw it over the fence to his brother, and they ran off laughing."
Brooklyn, gentrified or not, will always have that edge.
Fly Williams and I are sitting in his black Ford Expedition not far from Barclays Center. He lives on Dean Street near Brownsville, and it is amazing that he lives at all. He's on his way to the doctor to get the screws in his damaged hip checked out. He is so skinny he looks ill.
"I was up to 272 pounds before I had my heart attack," he says. "It must have been water. Now I'm like 180."
We talk about old times, about how people in the know said he was as good as Michael himself at one time. We talk about the late Rodney Parker, about wearing four pairs of socks to cushion the asphalt, about the Nets being right here. "That is amazing," says Fly. "That is fantastic."
He rummages around in his backseat, stiffly leaning past the pack of Newports resting in the cup holder. He retrieves a large envelope, pulls out the X-ray inside, the one of his chest and abdomen, holds it up to the bright city sun.
There's his implanted defibrillator and wires. There's the shotgun pellets, scattered like pinholes in a bulletin board. We count. "Three-six-nine-12-15 ... 22 there," he says. I count another 30. Then a dozen. There's a lower pattern with a gob of pellets. They're everywhere. "Millions of 'em," says Fly.
"I hope you live forever," I say.
A week later Fly is sitting outdoors by the softball diamond at the Brownsville Recreation Center. It hurts him to stand, so he has a folding chair. He is waiting for a special visitor. We talk, and then the man walks up, smiling hugely. It is Albert King. They have not seen each other for years. They have never really spoken.
Now they hug and talk and share stories about the old days.
"You were something," says King in true reverence. "You were the man."
Time has passed. The world has changed. People have departed. But these men are forever linked by their dreams, by Dr. Naismith's wonderful game.
Basketball is to Brooklyn as motherhood is to apple pie," says Ratner, using images that can get confusing. But under his arena are subways that can take one anywhere, bring the world here. "We prevailed," Ratner says proudly of his exotic team. "They did think I was crazy, putting an arena in an urban area. But this is a place where young people, everyone, can come to get away from business, from their troubles for a while. As Jay-Z said, 'We can be the new Dodgers.'"
Or as onetime criminal Shawn Carter from the Marcy Houses hollers to the audience at his hometown shows, the ghetto poet now running with the Russian, the hoopers, the mainline: "Stand up, Brooklyn!"
Consider it done.
If the Nets had no real identity through the years, wandering was part of the reason. The other part is that they have had but 12 winning records in 36 NBA seasons.
"A lot of people are thinking of Welcome Back, Kotter, that Brooklyn," King says. "But, man, this could be SoHo. When teams come in here, they're gonna be shocked."
Brooklyn has more hoops heritage in its parks than Harlem, the Bronx, West 4th Street, Philly, Chicago, L.A., anywhere.
A man comes up to street-ball legend Pee Wee Kirkland, kneels down and silently kisses his shoes. Is basketball sacred in New York, or what?
The Bed-Stuy product played just seven games at Boys High. But his NBA career was substantially longer: 15 seasons as a point guard and 32 as a coach.
After a five-year ABA career, Moe became a coach whose teams were known for their freestyling, run-and-gun ways—fitting for someone who learned the game at Foster Park.
The Hawk led Boys High to two public school titles, the second after dispatching Brooklyn's Wingate (led by future ABA legend Roger Brown) at MSG in front of 11,000 fans.
Raised in Flatbush, the Kangaroo Kid—like Moe—starred at Erasmus Hall and North Carolina. He then became a five-time All-Star and won an NBA title in 1983 as the coach of the Sixers.
One of three Brooklynites on the Lakers' 69-win 1971--72 team (the others were Happy Hairston and Leroy Ellis), the forward averaged 13.8 points over nine NBA seasons.
WORLD B. FREE
Playing with guys called Fly and Thrill (Phil Sellers), Lloyd Free was given the nickname World when he was 15. He made it legal during an NBA career in which he averaged 20.3 points.
After transferring from Tilden High to a school in Albany, Big Smooth thrived at North Carolina alongside another Brooklyn expat: Michael Jordan, who left the borough as a toddler.
Mullin was at St. John's when he won gold for the U.S. in 1984. His reason for skipping the team's trip to the White House: "I had to get back to Brooklyn."
A teammate of Mullin's at St. John's, Jackson is proof that not all outer-borough stars are gunners: His 10,334 assists rank third in NBA history.
The most heralded point guard out of Coney Island (he ranks just ahead of his cousin Sebastian Telfair), Starbury is going strong—in China—at 35.
Though he left Red Hook for Baltimore before he could become a playground legend, the fact remains: The Knicks are pinning their hopes on a Brooklyn native.
Photograph by RICK TELANDER
FLYING HIGH In the summer of '73, some of the best ball in New York City was being played at the Brownsville Houses, where stars such as Williams (shooting) drew crowds to the Hole.
ERICK W. RASCO (NETS)
FASHION STATEMENTS The Nets' eighth and latest home—where Jay-Z modeled the team's new jersey—is just seven subway stops from Foster Park, where Fly (left) and his 'fro dazzled the masses in the '70s.
JOHNNY NUNEZ/WIREIMAGE/GETTY IMAGES (JAY-Z)
[See caption above]
RICK TELANDER (WILLIAMS)
RICH CLARKSON (WILKENS)
BRUCE ROBERTS (MOE)
VERNON BIEVER/GETTY IMAGES (HAWKINS)
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (2002 FINALS)
IN THE WILDERNESS The Nets' peripatetic history does have a few highlights: Erving (above right) dazzled when the team played on Long Island, and the 2002 crew hosted the Finals in the Meadowlands.
WALTER IOOSS JR. (ERVING)
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FOCUS ON SPORT/GETTY IMAGES (CUNNINGHAM)
JOHN D. HANLON (MCMILLIAN)
RICHARD MACKSON (FREE)
OTTO GREULE JR./GETTY IMAGES (PERKINS)
MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY (PLAYGROUND)
SUPERIOR COURTS The Brooklyn basketball scene is as vibrant as it has ever been, whether the venue is a state-of-the-art $1 billion arena or the asphalt of Foster Park.
MICHAEL J. LEBRECHT II/1DEUCE3 PHOTOGRAPHY (BARCLAYS CENTER)
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JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (MULLIN)
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (JACKSON)
DAMIAN STROHMEYER (MARBURY)
PORTER BINKS (ANTHONY)