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The Nets restore joy and pride to Brooklyn

steinbergalanj021610_optBY ALAN STEINBERG
COMMENTARY

My professional sports fandom has been a true passionate love affair for the past 58 years of my life. During that time, I have had the joy of attending the Major League Baseball (MLB) World Series and League Championship Series, the National Football League (NFL) playoffs, and the National Basketball Association (NBA) playoffs and the National Hockey League (NHL) Stanley Cup.

Yet of all the sports events I have attended, I would have to include in my top five the game last Monday night, Nov. 26, 2012 at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center between the New York Knicks and the Brooklyn Nets. Brooklyn won an overtime thriller, 96-89, leaving the Nets and Knicks in a tie for first place in the NBA’s Atlantic Division.

Yet this event was much more than just a game. It was the beginning of what will doubtless be a magnificent and historic rivalry between the Nets and the Knicks. It was for me a night when my passion for sports and my love of the borough of Brooklyn truly merged, leaving me in a mood that can most accurately be described as ecstatic.

For Brooklyn sports fans, the game meant much more. It was the greatest night in Brooklyn since Oct. 4, 1955, the date when the late, lamented, Brooklyn Dodgers won their first and only World Series before breaking the hearts of Brooklynites and departing for Los Angeles after the 1957 season. Indeed, Nov. 26, 2012 was the night when the Nets brought to Brooklyn a sense of joy and pride that had not been present in the Borough of Kings since the halcyon days of the Brooklyn Dodgers.

To understand all this, you have to know something about Brooklyn – and the impact of the exodus of the Dodgers back in 1957.

My favorite place in the United States of America is Brooklyn, New York, for its present, past, and future.

I lived in the Borough of Brooklyn for two years of my adult life, and I absolutely love and adore it. As an Orthodox Jew, I can spend blissful hours on the streets of Boro Park, Crown Heights, and Midwood, stopping in kosher fast food eateries for a snack (in my case, usually a large one), or shopping in Judaica stores for the latest cantorial music album or Jewish history book.

Yet it is not only the Jewish neighborhoods that I love. Brooklyn has the best ethnic neighborhoods in America. While the suburbia in which I live has a sterile, assimilated American atmosphere, in Brooklyn you can still experience the joy of ethnically proud neighborhoods, including such diversified cultures as Caribbean, African-American, Italian, Polish, Russian, and many more. From Red Hook to Brighton Beach, a day trip through Brooklyn is an exhilarating magical experience that brings happiness to one’s heart.

And then, there are the aesthetic delights of Brooklyn: Prospect Park, the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Arch at Grand Army Plaza, the Arch de Triomphe of Brooklyn. Then there are Eastern Parkway and Ocean Parkway, either of which qualifies as the Champs Elysees of Brooklyn.

It is impossible to fully appreciate Brooklyn, however, without knowing something about the ghost that exists in the borough at the corner of Bedford Avenue and Sullivan Place, the site of the late, lamented Ebbets Field. This was the fabled home ballpark of the Brooklyn Dodgers, the baseball team with the greatest fans in the history of professional sports.

In the 1950s, the Brooklyn Dodgers were the most profitable ball club in the National League. Every single home game was televised on the then WOR-TV Channel 9, pursuant to a most lucrative contract with the team. Still, the Dodgers drew over a million fans each year during that decade, even during their last season in the Borough of Kings, 1957. An attendance of over 1 million fans in a season was considered to be the yardstick of baseball prosperity in the 1950s.

It wasn’t just the number of fans the Dodgers drew that gave the Flatbush Faithful their well-deserved reputation as baseball’s best. It was their enthusiasm and absolute love of the team that was unforgettable. There were the special characters who went to Ebbets Field – Hilda Chester, the Dodgers Sym-Phony, and even comedian Phil Foster. The Dodgers gave Brooklyn its identity as a city of its own, as it once actually was in the 19th century.

Baseball is a business, however – often, a cruel one. Walter O’Malley, the owner of the Dodgers was concerned about the spectacular attendance of the then Milwaukee Braves who had moved from Boston to Milwaukee in 1953. The Braves were then drawing attendances of over 2 million a year, although the Dodgers remained more profitable, due to their television contract.

O’Malley was worried, however, that the Braves would eventually earn more profits, maintain a better farm system, and sign better players. He believed that the Dodgers needed a new stadium. So he sought to have the land at the intersection of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues condemned and turned over to him as the site for a new domed ballpark. He would build it himself, with his own funds. Irony: After the 1965 season, the Braves moved to Atlanta, after numerous years of declining attendance.

The Atlantic-Flatbush site was ideal for a new sports facility. It was the location of a subway station served by nine major New York City subway lines and the Long Island Railroad as well. Dodger fans who had moved to Long Island could easily take the train to the game and not worry about parking problems, which they faced at Ebbets Field.

In order to condemn properties under eminent domain law, a public purpose was required. At that time, eminent domain power in New York City was held almost exclusively by Robert Moses, due to his position as chair of various authorities.

Moses did not believe that the need for a new major league ballpark constituted such a public purpose. Instead, he offered O’Malley city-owned land in Flushing Meadows, Queens in the same general location where later Shea Stadium and then Citi Field were built for the New York Mets. O’Malley refused, and he took his Dodgers across the nation to Los Angeles after the 1957 season.

When O’Malley took the Dodgers from Brooklyn to Los Angeles, the borough lost much of its sense of being a city of its own, separate and apart from the other four boroughs of New York City. The good people of Brooklyn had lost the Dodgers, their rallying point, their source of pride. It seemed that Brooklyn was destined to eternally share the same fate as the Bronx, Queens, and Staten Island, to wit, bedroom boroughs for Manhattan.

Yet the memory of Dodgers remained strong. There was that longing for a professional sports franchise that would restore to Brooklyn the identity and pride that it once had. Most Brooklynites, however, thought that this would never happen.



 

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