It’s the land of Jay-Z concerts and Spike Lee joints, of hipsters in Williamsburg and Martin Amis holed up in Park Slope–from Crown Heights and Coney Island to the Rockaways and Prospect Park, Brooklyn is the hot new place for New Yorkers to live and play. It would be the fifth largest city in America if it was officially a city and yet, when we sing of Brooklyn, as (adopted) Brooklynite Walt Whitman did so long ago, our modern song is a lament for what is lost: In 1957, a businessman looked west, taking the storied Brooklyn Dodgers from Flatbush to Los Angeles, making “Walter” and “O’Malley” as two of the worst curse words you can use in Kings County, New York.
But wait! As far as sports are concerned, Brooklyn just became the center of the universe again. No, there’s no major league baseball any more, but there is an NBA franchise—the Brooklyn Nets have moved into the brand-new Barclays Center on Atlantic Avenue. Even if their initially promising season took a turn for the worst when head coach Avery Johnson was ousted in late December, the team is attracting sellout crowds. In short order, they’ll be joined by the New York Islanders of the NHL, so can we say that Brooklyn’s pain of losing the Dodgers is finally being assuaged?
The truth is, Brooklyn’s always been a player: It’s the birthplace of Michael Jordan, Mike Tyson and Vince Lombardi, among others. We stroll you through the borough to remind ourselves that when it comes to sports and Brooklyn, we shouldn’t fuggedaboutit.
Where else to start but Prospect Heights, where the newly-minted, multi-purpose Barclays Center opened with a bunch of Jay-Z concerts before the transplanted New Jersey Nets moved in? But the development was not without controversy, as all development is–but a flick through “Brooklyn Then and Now,” by Marcia Reiss, a pictorial guide to the changing borough, shows how in a city like New York, time and real estate waits for no man.
Eventually the New York Islanders will make their home here, away from Long Island proper, sharing space with the Nets. Few remember that just three decades ago, the Islanders won the Stanley Cup four times in a row–but their history has tended toward the underwhelming, as Alan Hahn and Peter Botte recount in “Fish Sticks: The Fall and Rise of the New York Islanders.”
A couple of miles south of Atlantic Avenue used to sit a pair of Washington Park(s) (both first and second), the original homes for the tramway-dodging Dodgers baseball franchise. Though more often associated with Ebbets Field in nearby Flatbush, the team made its start on what is now a quiet, Con-Ed depot-dominated corner of the Gowanus section of Brooklyn (it’s at 4th Avenue and 3rd Street if you’re in the neighborhood). The heart-sickening move from Ebbets Field to L.A. ended major league baseball in Brooklyn, but for fans of the Dodgers there will always be Roger Kahn’s classic account of their heyday, “The Boys of Summer.”
Flatbush also features in another sorry sporting tale–it’s the birthplace of now-deceased and now forever-disgraced Penn State head coach, Joe Paterno. His Brooklyn background is said to have helped form his tough outer carapace; sadly, that toughness probably didn’t help him realize the gravity of what his defensive coach, Jerry Sandusky, was up to all those years. Joe Posnanski unravels the entire sorry affair in his bestselling biography, “Paterno.”
Brooklyn is the borough of tough, so from Flatbush we head south to Sheepshead Bay, where the Lombardi family spilled out onto the local football fields. Famous son Vince was born here, and the take-no-prisoners approach to football he displayed as legendary coach of the Green Bay Packers was formed on the gird irons of this south Brooklyn neighborhood, as David Maraniss recounts in “When Pride Still Mattered: Lombardi.”
Tough with a heart of gold might describe another Brooklynite, Marine Park’s own Joe Torre, former manager of the epoch-making New York Yankees of the late 90s and aughts. Though he also managed the New York Mets (and, later, the displaced Dodgers of L.A.), he’ll be forever remembered for his pionstriped, tearful, post-World Series celebrations; it’s all lovingly recalled in his book with Tom Verducci, “The Yankee Years.”
If you want tough of a totally different caliber, Bed-Stuy is the next stop, where you can find the childhood home of Mike Tyson. This is where the ear-mangling mauler first started keeping pigeons (it’s his other expertise), and hitting people very hard. Incredibly, Tyson has been the subject of many a serious consideration by some heavy-hitting writers–a number of such pieces are collected in “Iron Mike: A Mike Tyson Reader,” featuring the likes of Christopher Hitchens, David Remnick, the Petes Hamill and Dexter, Robert Lipsyte and even Joyce Carol Oates.
Michael Jordan is most closely associated with North Carolina, where his family moved when he was a toddler and for whose eponymous university he starred as an undergraduate point guard. But the greatest-ever hoopster was actually born where the hipsters now thrive: Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Though his birthplace is usually a throwaway line in the biographies, in moments like his first game at Madison Square Garden since his mid-career retirement (where he drained a cool 55 points), didn’t we sense that MJ was entirely at home?