Tuesday, Sept. 24, 1957 is a day that will live in infamy in the borough of Brooklyn.
At 9:08 p.m. that evening, Brooklyn Dodgers’ pitcher Danny McDevitt looked in for his sign from catcher Joe Pignatano on a 1-1 pitch with two outs in the top of the ninth inning at Ebbets Field. The lefty wound up and delivered a pitch to Pittsburgh Pirates’ first baseman and former Dodgers’ farmhand Dee Fondy.
Fondy chopped a ball to the left side, where Dodgers’ shortstop Don Zimmer gobbled it up and threw across the diamond to Gil Hodges for the final out in the Dodgers’ 2-0 victory. Though the season wasn’t quite over, that game marked the last ever at Ebbets Field in Crown Heights.
The 6,702 fans in attendance that day joined the scores of Brooklynites lamenting the loss of their beloved franchise, which owner Walter O’Malley agreed to move to Los Angeles for the start of the 1958 season.
Fast-forward 55 years, and Brooklyn, with its 2.5 million residents, is rife with excitement in welcoming the Brooklyn Nets, formerly the New Jersey Nets, to the borough for the 2012-2013 NBA season.
“It’s a dream come true,” said Brooklyn Borough President Marty Markowitz, 67, who has lived in Brooklyn his entire life. “Certainly I was fortunate, at least the first 12 years of my life, to have the greatest baseball team in the nation, the Brooklyn Dodgers. I cried like millions of others when they left us for La La Land.”
Since 2001, the Brooklyn Cyclones, the short-season Single-A minor league affiliate of the New York Mets, have called Coney Island home. However, with the Nets, Brooklyn will once again rally around a professional sports franchise.
“The truth is that Brooklyn is a major league city requiring a major league team,” Markowitz said. “It’s great for the kids and the families that they’ll be able to root for the home team just like I was fortunate for the early part of my life.”
The Nets come to Brooklyn with a tumultuous history. The team started in the American Basketball Association (ABA) as the New York Americans; moved to the Garden State to become the New Jersey Americans; played on Long Island as the New York Nets; and settled in the Meadowlands, East Rutherford, N.J., as the New Jersey Nets upon the NBA-ABA merger of 1976.
In the franchise’s 36 years as the New Jersey Nets, the team managed just 12 winning seasons and has not made the NBA playoffs since 2007. But as the team struggled, the seeds of a move to Brooklyn were planted.
In January, 2004, N.Y.C. real estate developer Bruce Ratner announced his intentions to move the team to the borough of Kings after his purchase of the franchise. Current team owner, Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, has used his wealth to put Ratner’s plan into action.
With basically limitless funds, Nets general manager Billie King has constructed a team worthy of Brooklyn’s inaugural season. Only five players remain from last year’s team, which finished the 2011-2012 lockout-shortened NBA season 22-44 – last place in the Atlantic Division.
Brooklyn’s backcourt, Deron Williams and Joe Johnson, are expected to lead the team. Combined, the two guards have appeared in nine All-Star games.
Seven-foot tall center Brook Lopez returns as the longest tenured Net, and he’ll be joined on the wings by rebounding machine Kris Humphries at power forward and defensive specialist Gerald Wallace at small forward. The team also has a deep bench, which will see plenty of action.
Led by head coach Avery Johnson, a 1999 NBA champion as a player with the San Antonio Spurs, the Nets have high expectations heading into the season. Though the reigning NBA champion Miami Heat, Boston Celtics and Chicago Bulls are still the class of the Eastern Conference, anything short of a playoff berth would be a disappointment for the Nets, owners of an $85.5 million payroll.
A New Home
With the move, the Nets of course needed a place to call home, and the new $1 billion Barclays Center in Downtown Brooklyn is up to the challenge. The project began at the corner of Flatbush and Atlantic Aves. nine years ago with the goal of serving as an athletic and entertainment destination in one of the borough’s most culturally diverse areas.
Ironically, the 18,000-seat Barclays Center is located just two miles southeast of 55 Sullivan Pl., the address of Ebbets Field. The arena will rival the iconic Cyclone roller coaster and the Williamsburgh Savings Bank clock tower as the most notable landmarks in the borough.
The opening of Barclays Center has already created 2,000 new jobs and has led to an economic stimulation of local businesses, restaurants and retail locations. In addition to basketball, the venue has already hosted conferences and concerts, including the inaugural show by Brooklyn native and Nets’ part-owner Jay-Z on Sept. 28.
“I think it’s great,” Pignatano, the only former Dodger who still lives in Brooklyn, said of the new arena. “It will help bring in revenue for the city so the mayor don’t tax us no more. I think it’s going to be super.”
Pignatano and former Brooklyn Dodgers’ hurler Ralph Branca will join Markowitz and a full house at Barclays Center Thursday, Nov. 1 for opening night. Fittingly, the Nets play host to cross-river rivals, the New York Knicks. Brooklyn’s own Marv Albert, who served as an errand boy for the Brooklyn Dodgers and was at Ebbets Field for the final game, will announce the 7 p.m. game on TNT.
“It’s really a great win-win for everybody; it truly is,” Markowitz said. “It’s a great new era to be living here in Brooklyn.”
The Nets are eager to write a new chapter in franchise history, while the borough of Brooklyn hopes to finally forget the “Ghosts of Flatbush.”
Hopefully the Nets don’t adopt the “wait ‘til next year” mentality associated with “Dem Bums.” While the franchise has adopted the slogan “It’s Our Time,” it’s really all of Brooklyn’s time, since the borough once again has a team to calls its own.