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.