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New Newark centers around 'The Rock'

File photo of the Prudential Center in Newark,

File photo of the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J. Credit: AP

NEWARK

Cory Booker was talking outside the Prudential Center Thursday as Cory Booker usually does: quickly and confidently, serving in his role as his city's Cheerleader in Chief.

But the mayor knew nothing he said would be as powerful as one word -- in blue, block letters on the baseline of a basketball court -- America will see during the NCAA East Regional this weekend:

NEWARK.

"I'm swelling with pride, as I know many of my residents are, seeing so many people now get it that the NCAA chose us," he said.

Until recently, the notion of any sports event of this magnitude occurring in the perpetually beleaguered community would have been laughable.

But the opening of "The Rock" in 2007 allowed the NCAA to tab New Jersey's largest city in the fall of '09 -- bypassing the Izod Center, which had hosted 11 regionals and one Final Four.

(Madison Square Garden is believed to be a candidate to host games in 2013, pending its ongoing renovation. The current Garden never has hosted an NCAA game.)

The reaction has been euphoric on the parts of both Newark and the Devils, who jointly built the arena. They view the event as a showcase for both entities.

"We're trying to feed people a syndrome we call 'Newark Shock,' which is when people who haven't been here in a long time come into our downtown and see what's going on," Booker said.

"It wakes them up. This is even better than that. Hopefully by the time the weekend is over people who haven't even visited here will have a different view of our city."

Said Devils owner Jeff Vanderbeek: "It is big creditability is really what it is, from a city standpoint, and from the arena standpoint."

Based on some of the NCAA's criteria, the Prudential Center was an obvious pick.

Patrick Hobbs, acting athletic director for host school Seton Hall, said the organization likes to tab new arenas in new locales, preferably ones with a diverse environment and easy travel connections. (More than half the people who come to the arena use mass transit.)

In other words, Nassau Coliseum, which hosted NCAA games in 1982, 1994 and 2001, has no realistic chance of doing so again without, at the least, massive updating.

That would mean new competition for the Prudential Center, but Vanderbeek said as an NHL owner he would love to see the Islanders get a modern facility.

"They certainly deserve a beautiful arena," he said.

Vanderbeek said The Rock benefited from a "wow factor" as the first of the area's wave of new sports facilities to open. But he admitted there have been ups and downs over the past 3½ years, many related to the hobbled economy.

Booker himself was a "vociferous" opponent of the arena before he became mayor.

"I could have continued to say this was not the best investment of 200-plus-million dollars, or I could say, 'I'm going to try to make the arena better than the people before me hoped it would be,' " he said.

"Now that we have it I want to make it the greatest engine for economic growth in any city in America."

That is a bit much, but restaurants and bars have begun to sprout, ground is to be broken next week on the first new hotel in downtown Newark in 40 years, the arena has a busy concert schedule and in addition to the Devils and Seton Hall, it is the temporary home of the Nets and Liberty.

Newark has not overcome its decades-old reputation for poverty and crime, but Booker insists it is headed in the right direction.

"It's really become a platform to tell our truth to the world," he said. "So many people have this image that is just frozen around the time of your birth, frankly, that is just not true."

Sure enough, I made my world premiere a couple of miles from where Booker and I spoke. In 1960.

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