- Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
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Basketball and Brooklyn. When you think about it, the combination sounds like a good match. Brooklyn, after all, has given the sports world many great moments in the past and the Nets should create highlights for a whole new generation at the Barclays Center.
As a one-time participant and long-time observer of New York sports and of great rivalries, I sense something special is about to happen.
Brooklyn did not become a part of New York City until 1898. Prior to that it had its own municipal services and administrators. But it was absorbed by the city of New York, losing its autonomy and some of its identity in the process.
One holdover was the National League baseball franchise called at times the Robins and later the Dodgers because Brooklyn fans had to dodge trolleys to enter their new stadium on Flatbush Avenue. Even though I grew up near the Polo Grounds in northern Manhattan, the Dodgers were my team.
The Dodgers' 1951 late-season collapse so dramatically underlined by Bobby Thomson's home run was the most memorable moment in that era. It avenged the Dodgers successful effort that kept the Giants from winning the 1934 National League pennant. From 1949 and 1956, New York was the home of the World Series champ. The Yankees won six titles, with the Giants (1954) and Dodgers (1955) winning the other two.
The whole city was consumed with the rivalries, especially us kids. At summer camp it was important to find like-minded guys. We didn't want to get stuck with some Yankees or Giants fan if at all possible. We would invoke our heroes' names as we played ball and everyone knew about which team was contending for the pennant.
Then in 1958, the Dodgers and Giants left for the West Coast. Brooklyn has not had its own top-tier professional sports franchise since. The Dodgers' move seemed to be the opening act for a long decline in the fortunes of the borough. The rivalry with the Giants never lost its intensity, but that shifted to a new fan base, and New York lost something. More recent times have seen the Mets' mediocre rivalry with the Yankees, but that matchup has been up and down and fairly one-sided.
Nets-Knicks has the potential to recreate the fervent rivalries of the 1950s among Gotham's sports fans. Both teams have gotten off to a great start and have been among the better teams early in the season. Another important aspect to the budding rivalry is that Brooklyn native and megastar rapper Jay Z is part-owner of the Nets. So the team is part of the whole social fabric of the borough.
Brooklyn also has supplied talent to the NBA since day one. Brooklynites Red Auerbach, Connie Hawkins, Stephon Marbury, Red Holzman and Chris Mullin all played the game with style and heart. (Holzman and my dad won a handball city championship at Franklin K. Lane High School in the late '30s.) Now Brooklyn kids can dream of playing NBA basketball in front of friends and family in their home borough.
Mikhail Prokhorov, the Nets' Russian owner who moved the team from New Jersey, could open the game to a whole new set of fans. And don't be surprised if the team drafts a player from Russia to appeal to the large Russian expatriate community there. That would be fully within the tradition of a melting pot that has been the first U.S. home for immigrants from around the world.
In 2015, the Islanders will also be moving in, giving Brooklyn sports fans even more to root for.
I'm looking forward to seeing some of the zaniness that was part of watching a game at Ebbets Fields. The stage is set and I think that a great new era of sports in New York is upon us. I can only imagine the fun arguments the next generation of kids will have about their favorite teams.
The Nets' arrival in Brooklyn could ignite a fresh rivalry in New York, a city with a long history of great sports duels.