Nets remember Brooklyn sports history in first game

From left, Brook Lopez, Deron Williams and Gerald From left, Brook Lopez, Deron Williams and Gerald Wallace wear Brooklyn Dodgers jerseys during pregame ceremonies before a game against the Toronto Raptors at the Barclays Center. (Nov. 3, 2012) Photo Credit: Jim McIsaac

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Neil Best Newsday columnist Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned in 1985. His SportsWatch column debuted on Sept. ...

The Nets could have just showed up in Brooklyn and embraced its 21st century vibe, full of cool, young people for whom history is last month's hot new artisan bread shop.

Well, OK, there is some of that going on here, too.

But let's give the newcomers credit for not ignoring the longer narrative arc of New York's most prideful borough.

Hence Saturday night's half-century-in-the-making return of major pro sports was a celebration that looked both forward and rearward.

Brooklyn being Brooklyn, all parties agreed Brooklyn was the best place to be, then and now. And that was even before the Nets did in their first game here what the Dodgers did in their last home game in 1957: won, beating the Raptors, 107-100, at Barclays Center.

Unlike in 1957, fans repeatedly chanted "Broooook-lyn" in support of their new heroes.

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"I think it's a marriage made in heaven," said Ralph Branca, who 61 years ago threw the most famous pitch in the history of baseball -- it didn't go well for the Dodgers, alas -- and Saturday, he was honored before the Nets opened their new era.

Branca is 86, but he was full of energy as he was joined in welcoming the Nets by fellow former Dodger Joe Pignatano, who was born and still lives in Brooklyn, and Gil Hodges Jr., whose late father made the final putout at Ebbets Field.

When Branca said before the game that he was unsure where Brooklyn ranks among major cities, by which he meant in terms of population, Pignatano interrupted him and said, "It's No. 1, Ralphie! It's No. 1!"

Said Branca: "The city of Brooklyn is special," ignoring the technicality that it has not been an independent city since 1898. "I think the fans are going to be loyal to them and devoted to them because it says Brooklyn on their shirt."

Hodges, who grew up in Brooklyn, said: "The way the fans embraced the Dodgers, I have a strong feeling the same is going to happen with the Nets. This is a borough that has been longing for many decades to have their own team, and finally they have it."

Or, as Pignatano put it, "Brooklyn needs a professional team! I don't care if it's bowling!"

So it went on a night that served as a group hug for Brooklyn, not only because of its 55 years in the pro sports desert but more importantly because Sandy dealt its shore a severe blow, a fact of real life that hung over the evening.

The storm delayed the Nets' coming-out party by two days after Thursday's game against the Knicks was postponed.

It was just as well.

On one hand, the Knicks would have generated more buzz than the Raptors; at times, the arena was surprisingly subdued, given the magnitude of the event. But the Knicks' absence ensured that nearly everyone in the building at least was supporting the home team.

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The Nets pulled out all the stops, including part-owner Jay-Z and his wife, Beyoncé, courtside, and a characteristically entertaining news conference featuring owner Mikhail Prokhorov, who among other things said a successful season would require a trip to the conference finals.

He also noted that the pressure is on for the Nets to win an NBA championship within three years, given his vow that if they fail to win it all in his first five seasons as owner, he will punish himself by getting married.

Before the game, Nets players exchanged their jerseys for the Brooklyn Dodgers jerseys worn by Branca, Pignatano and Hodges Jr.

Brook Lopez ended up wearing Branca's jersey and Branca wore Lopez's even as he watched the game. Lopez, one of several players who seemed genuinely moved by the historic theme, later called Branca's gesture "unbelievable."

He said a friend who is an avid Giants fans texted a picture of him in Branca's jersey and jokingly announced that Lopez henceforth is "dead'' to him.

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After the pregame jersey ceremony, borough president Marty Markowitz took center stage and invoked a line made famous by another son of Brooklyn, Jackie Gleason. "Brooklyn Nets basketball is here!" he yelled. "How sweet it is!"

So it was.

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