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A Team Grows in Brooklyn

Deron Williams in the November 2012 Red Bulletin magazine Red Bulletin Magazine

 

Brooklyn Nets point guard Deron Williams pump-fakes, then drives to the rim for an easy layup as a shout goes up from the courtside crowd. Their $98 million man is showing Brooklyn what he’s got, and Brooklyn approves.

The demonstration is not taking place at the new Barclays Center a few blocks away; Williams is doing his thing on the concrete at McLaughlin Park, a place that has seen thousands of pick-up games but never one with this kind of talent mismatch: an NBA star shaking and baking a 14-year-old kid. The NBA season is a month away, but Williams, back from a gold-medal performance in the Olympics, is getting started early: After 54 years, professional sports has returned to Brooklyn, and Williams is the ambassador of the new regime.

Williams (or “D-Will” in our age of hyphenated celebrities) is the starting point guard, and point man, for the renamed and relocated Brooklyn Nets, who will be taking up residence this September in a billion-dollar arena built just for them in the heart of New York City’s largest borough. The alignment of forces that have returned professional sports to Brooklyn include a Russian billionaire, a controversial developer, a hip-hop superstar, the changing nature of American cities, and a franchise that for most of its history has resembled the Three Stooges on a bender. What’s at stake is how Brooklyn will see itself for decades to come, and how the world will see Brooklyn.

In the summer of 1957, “the most notorious abandonment in the history of professional sports” took place, when Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley announced that he would be moving the team to Los Angeles.

O’Malley had been battling with the Stalin of city planners, Robert Moses, over where to locate a new stadium for the Dodgers. O’Malley wanted it at the Atlantic train yard terminal; Moses, at Flushing Meadows in Queens (present-day site of Citi Field).

Both egomaniacal autocrats were used to getting their own way, and when Moses wouldn’t budge, O’Malley took his toy and ran, betraying generations of fans whose passion for “dem bums” had been reignited by a victory over the Evil Empire (aka the Yankees) in the 1955 World Series. This marked the end of professional sports in Brooklyn and another in a long line of humiliations for the borough.

Of course, it’s safe to assume that no one on the court is thinking about the ghosts of the Brooklyn Dodgers. They want to see Superman fly. The iPhones are out, and you hear the 21st-century cries of success: “I got 4:33 of video!” “I got five minutes!” Gawkers crowd the key. For a superhero, Williams isn’t particularly striking. Sure, he’s handsome and solidly built. But at 6’3” in a sport where giants rule, Williams looks like dozens of guys you might see on an A-train ride from Midtown to Jay Street.

Since voting to join with the other four boroughs in one New York City in 1894, Brooklyn hasn’t been able to catch a break.

In a game of one-on-one his genius as a floor general doesn’t come into play, but still, he doesn’t disappoint. Of course, the succession of kids who line up for their chance aren’t real competition, and he goes easy on them, flexing just enough to make his superiority clear. The limelight makes everything worse for these high school wannabes: Whenever they pull back for outside shots (are you really going to drive on an NBA player?), they launch up bricks.

“I guess you don’t have no shooters around here,” he says to laughter after another clank. When the kids try to dribble, a hand check sends them reeling back, and you get just the slightest inkling of the difference between the NBA and the playground.

Williams drains every outside shot he feels like taking, swish, and when he drives, all the kid can do is grab his arm as he rises for another layup. “Well, that works,” he says after a hack. The most astonishing thing about his performance is that it’s happening at all. Think about the consequences if he were to land awkwardly on a dunk attempt and his knee exploded. Somewhere out there a team manager is chugging Pepto.

Since voting to join with the other four boroughs in one New York City in 1894, Brooklyn hasn’t been able to catch a break. Never mind that on its own, its 2.5 million people would make it the fourth-largest city in the U.S.; Brooklyn still gets no respect. Never mind the artists (Norman Mailer, Woody Allen, Max Roach, Spike Lee), athletes (Michael Jordan, Vince Lombardi), and politicians (Senators Chuck Schumer, Barbara Boxer) who were born or raised in the borough (this includes Bugs Bunny, who, as legend has it, was born under Ebbets Field). Whatever the reason, Brooklyn has remained in the shadow of the towers across the river.

After piling into a black Land Rover, we head north up Myrtle Avenue for our next photo shoot, taking a diagonal through the heart of the borough, from ethnic Brooklyn to a version of a Brooklyn future that might come to be. In the Rover, Williams assumes a different character: the businessman, showing the acumen that has led the Nets to put the next five years in his hands.

As a New York Times reporter conducts a phone interview, Williams answers in clear, reasoned tones. The reporter wants to know how he feels about the move to Brooklyn, what it means to the players, if they’re all moving to the city, how it’s going to change their lives. It soon becomes apparent that the reporter is driving Williams crazy.

“I can’t stand it -- they want me to answer about everyone,” he says, muting the phone. “They just fish for everything. He’s asking what other people are going to do. How am I supposed to know what a single man wants to do?”

Back to the phone.

“Sorry,” he says. “I lost you for a second there.”

Williams has had an uncomfortable relationship with the media ever since the upheavals with his first team, the Utah Jazz. To his credit, he hasn’t been involved in any of the scandals that often adhere to wealthy young men with celebrity profiles. He isn’t getting DUIs, or into brawls at nightclubs, or having stormy affairs with reality-TV bimbos. Williams is married to his high school girlfriend, whom he met in the second grade, and they have four kids (much to the dismay of women commenting on the NBA “players’ wives” web page).

For decades, the Nets have been the clown car of the NBA, crashing from one misfortune to the next.

As the questioning grinds away, Williams keeps his cool: No, he doesn’t think that his teammates are going to be flocking to Manhattan -- it’s too expensive. Personally, he loves being in Manhattan, but he’s not in the same place as some of the other guys. “If you’re making the minimum, $20,000 a month, and your rent is $10,000, and you don’t know if you’re going to be here next year, then why would you live in the city?”

That consideration shows an empathy you don’t often see in men under the age of 30, especially men who have earned a lucrative long-term contract in a profession that seldom grants them. After hanging up on the reporter, he sighs and runs a hand over his cropped ’fro.

Williams and his teammates aren’t alone in the tough decisions the geographical shift has forced them to make. Generations of Brooklynites have now grown up with only one team to root for in the New York area. And the locals, at least those at McLaughlin Park, were Knicks fans to a man.

When I asked if they could see themselves rooting for the Nets, they paused. “The stadium is four blocks from my house,” one said. “I’ll be there for opening night.” Another said, “They’re going to be a Brooklyn team and I’m from Brooklyn, so…” When I told them Williams would be arriving in minutes, they morphed into fans. “You think I could get a picture with him?”

The best line came from an older white guy on the park maintenance staff, in his official forest-green park uniform. “I’m a Knicks fan,” he said. “So it will take a while. But if they win…”

If there was ever a franchise destined for hard-luck Brooklyn, the Nets are it. Hapless, bumbling, cursed -- ladies and gentlemen, here are your New York, Long Island, New Jersey, and now Brooklyn Nets. For decades, the Nets have been the clown car of the NBA, crashing from one misfortune to the next. After joining the NBA in 1976, the Nets moved from Long Island to New Jersey a year later.

Williams was the most sought-after free agent on the market before opting to stay and lead the revitalized franchise in its new chapter.

They stumbled through the next two decades with lowlights that include the death of all-star Drazen Petrovic in a car accident, one of their star players entering a game with “Please Trade Me” Sharpie-d onto his sneakers, and team captain Kenny Anderson skipping practice to visit a strip club. The Nets’ identity was so unstable that team president Jon Spoelstra decided to rename them the New Jersey Swamp Dragons in 1994. (After the change was approved by the NBA, the team co-owner thought better of it.) Even during their two finals runs in 2002 and 2003, the Nets didn’t gain the loyalty of New Jersey suburbanites. Still, it was only after a bid to build a new stadium in Newark fell through that the team agreed to move to Brooklyn.

Yet change brings hope, and this off-season the Nets did more than hop across Manhattan. Williams was the most sought-after free agent on the market before opting to stay and lead the revitalized franchise in its new chapter. “I think it’s an exciting move, that’s one of the reasons I stayed,” he says. “The people in Brooklyn are eager and hungry for a team, a winning team. If we start winning, I can be part of something special.”

The Nets also brought in Atlanta Hawks sharpshooter Joe Johnson and the multitalented Gerald Wallace. With rebound machine Kris Humphries and re-signed center Brook Lopez, who missed all but five games last year with a foot fracture, the Nets have a strong starting five. (Williams says “it was harder to get people to come to New Jersey in free agency. It’s going to be a lot easier to get people to come to Brooklyn.”)

Barring injuries, the Nets should be competitive in their division and a shoo-in for a playoff spot. “If they win,” they’ll have a chance to poach fans from the Knicks, a train wreck themselves over the last 15 years. Brooklynites have never needed much of an excuse to turn against the nabobs across the East River.

Since unveiling the new logo on April 30, the team has sold more than $4 million worth of tickets, 75 percent of its luxury suites, and 2,000 non-premium season-ticket plans.

A large part of the buzz around the team has come from one of its minority owners, the hip-hop artist Jay-Z. “Minority” isn’t diminutive enough to describe Jay-Z’s slice -- his investment nine years ago provides him one-15th of one percent of the Nets. Yet his impact has gone far beyond the million-dollar crumb: Even more than Williams, the Brooklyn native has become the face of the team, spearheading the new black and white logo, the typeface, and the colors meant to evoke New York City Subway roll-signs from the 1950s. For a team seeking urban cred, Jay-Z serves as a perfect figurehead.

The Nets are relying on Sean Carter to bring the celebrities and their paparazzi pilot fish. In the long term, only winning will count, but in the short term they couldn’t have picked a better mouthpiece: Since unveiling the new logo on April 30, the team has sold more than $4 million worth of tickets, 75 percent of its luxury suites, and 2,000 non-premium season-ticket plans.

“I already told you,” the manager says as he comes out of the shop. “You can’t film out here.” Our caravan has landed in South Williamsburg, and the production team has Williams posing in front of Marlow & Daughters, a boutique butcher on Broadway. Marlow’s is not your granddad’s chop shop -- the men and women wearing blood-smeared aprons have college degrees and play in indie bands.

We’re at the outer verge of hipsterland, an outpost of the gentrification that has put Brooklyn into play, and indirectly made things like the Barclays Center possible. But Marlow & Daughters doesn’t see it that way. They have no interest in the magazine making props out of their retro storefront; future Nets fans are not Marlow’s customer base. When I went inside and bought a $6 bottle of Fuji apple juice (cold pressed and unfiltered), I told them that Deron Williams was outside.

“Who’s Deron Williams?” the woman behind the counter said.

“He’s the point guard for the Nets,” I said.

“The Nets,” she said. “That’s a sports team, right?”

As we wander down the street in search of a more welcoming locale, Hasidic men in shirtsleeves and suspenders barely give us a glance. Hasidic or hipster -- Williamsburg is not where the Nets are going to make converts. Their demographic is the blue-collar neighborhoods south and west, in Bensonhurst, Bedford-Stuyvesant, and Flatbush -- the home of ethnic and working-class Brooklyn, not the Brooklyn that gets the Yelp buzz for fine dining and gallery openings.

Yet this was the place that made Brooklyn a tourist destination and international center of hip. Williamsburg didn’t have the brick mansions of the Heights or the brownstones of Park Slope, but it did have big lofts and low rents. The cheap space brought artists who’d been priced out of the East Village one subway stop across the river. The artists brought the rock bands who brought the fans who brought the artisanal cheese, the beer gardens, and the designer cocktail lounges.

If the Nets do it right, if they dive for the loose balls and take the charges, they can be the team of the 99 percent against a bunch of spoiled superstars in Manhattan.

We settle on a stoop outside a brick three-story tenement on South 6th, right under the Williamsburg Bridge. From overhead comes the whiz of cars and the clanking of the J-M-Z subway line. As Williams lounges on the stairs for more photos, the door opens behind him and a pit bull trots out the door. Williams dashes around the corner -- there’s nothing wrong with his reflexes. The owner laughs and calls him back: “She’s friendly.” He returns and rubs the dog’s head, a small pit bitch with swollen teats. The owner is wearing a black T-shirt that reads “Dr. Know.” On his head is a baseball cap for a trucking company. He has no idea who Deron Williams is.

The Nets, though, have all the rest of the borough to appeal to, those 2-million-plus people, most of them having nothing in common with the investment bankers and corporate lawyers across the river. Even though the ethnicities have changed, from Irish, Italian, and Jewish to Chinese, Jamaican, and Dominican, Brooklyn remains a working-class city of strivers who came here for a better life and are willing to scrap for it. If the Nets do it right, if they dive for the loose balls and take the charges, they can be the team of the 99 percent against a bunch of spoiled superstars in a Manhattan that has turned into a gated community.

“People are proud of being from Brooklyn,” Williams says. “I don’t think we’re going to have a problem selling out the arena. Other people around the NBA are taking notice and want to see what this can be.”

The last stop on his “get to know your city tour” is Grand Street Park, a re-sculpted bit of waterfront next to the (defunct) Domino Sugar plant. Sugar refineries provided the jobs that drew the immigrants who made Williamsburg the most densely populated neighborhood in the United States. Those days are long gone, and like the Nets, like Brooklyn, the future of the plant is uncertain -- although the current plan has it being converted into 1,600 luxury condos. For a long time it was a cruising spot where gay Hasidic men and Puerto Rican teenagers would smoke pot and make out. When hipsters put the neighborhood back in play, the city found money somewhere for a renovation.

The late afternoon light makes the waterfront idyllic, casting long shadows as the occasional ferry and cruise boat steam by. D-Will, in gray jeans and a white T-shirt, his third costume change and fourth pair of sneakers, poses on the big boulders of the breakwater, his back to the gleaming towers of Manhattan. He raises his arms to the sky.

“New York City,” he says. “There’s no city like it.” Williams is the latest in a long line drawn by the bright lights. A few of the heroes have become legends, many others have ended up broken and forgotten. There’s no doubt that Williams has the cool and talent to handle it, but he has a way to go before he’s crowned the king of the new-look Brooklyn.

The camera clicks one last time and Williams hops back to the shore. It’s been a long day, and Williams walks gingerly along the path. Those sneakers aren’t exactly broken in yet.

 

Check out the November 2012 issue of Red Bulletin magazine (on newsstands October 16) for more articles. To read the magazine on your iPad, download the Red Bulletin iPad app.

 

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