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Robert E. Murphy

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The Brooklyn Nets -- How Sweet the Sound

Posted: 10/03/11 06:28 PM ET

The Brooklyn Nets. Only people around here who are my age or older can quite appreciate the significance of those words. My age is 62. On October 8, 1957, I was eight, and on that day Red Patterson, spokesman for the Brooklyn Dodgers, read a brief statement to the press announcing that the team, which had been organized in 1883, was moving to Los Angeles. At that moment the City of Brooklyn died its last death.

The City of Brooklyn? Yes, and Brooklyn's history as a city is an important consideration in the argument that burned for years about whether or not there should be a major sports arena where there were primarily trainyards in a downtown area of this city that became a borough -- a city and borough that once hosted franchises in baseball's National League and Federal League, the National Football League and the All-America Football conference. That arena is now being built; a group of residents who vigorously opposed it in the streets and in the courts have lost. They had their rights and they had their reasons. No one wants to be forced to leave his or her home. And yes, there are legitimate questions about how great real-estate projects are arranged and financed. But their battle is done. We old Brooklynites wish them well, and indeed most of them are doing quite well, after leaving with wads of cash in their hands.

For those who have welcomed the coming of what will be known as the Barclays Center, and Brooklyn's first major sports franchise in 55 years, our excitement has been dimmed, however, by doubts about what the relocated National Basketball Association team would be called. Whether or not it would keep the name "Nets," which has served it for decades on Long Island and in New Jersey, or adopt a new label indigenous to Brooklyn, has always been less important than whether it would identify itself as a "Brooklyn" or as a "New York" franchise. I have long expected the latter, and so I was delighted the other day when one of its minor investors, the rap star Jay-Z, announced at the construction site that it will in fact be the home of the Brooklyn Nets.

Now for a bit of that history that I spoke of. Brooklyn was an incorporated city from 1834 to 1898, when it was consolidated into what was called Greater New York. That was the preferred term, because it was understood that the new entity was the union of two big cities, plus three largely suburban counties. From the 1850s to 1890, in fact, Brooklyn had been the third-largest city in America, behind New York and Philadelphia. In 1898 it had been overtaken by Chicago but had passed a million in population. By the 1920s it contained more people than Manhattan, the original City of New York, and it peaked at close to three million in 1950. Today its official population of 2.5 million is generally thought to be a significant undercount. It was not intended that becoming a borough of Greater New York would deprive Brooklyn of its status as an important American place in its own right. But some of its leading citizens had warned that that would happen, and to a large extent it did. It lost power and, enormously, lost prestige.

My best example of how Brooklyn was nearly effaced from the American map is a comment made to me some years a go by a fellow in Boston, who was, by the way, a college graduate: "Brooklyn? That's sort of like Brighton, isn't it?." Brighton is a Boston neighborhood that had a population then of, at most, 50,000. Now, if Brooklyn had remained a city, it would be unimaginable that any minimally informed American could be so ignorant of its identity. I dryly responded that there were at least as many people in Brooklyn as there were in Greater Boston.

The very name of Brooklyn became shameful. A couple of decades ago, St. Francis College, which has operated here since 1884, began to advertise itself as being located in "Brooklyn Heights, New York," which happened to be a still-prestigious enclave. (I wrote its president a note of concern that the school had left Brooklyn. He missed the sarcasm.) More recently, when Marriott built the first hotel to rise here in decades, they dared not christen it "The Brooklyn Marriott," but opted for "The Brooklyn Bridge Marriott" -- another reach for prestige. And so on. So you can understand my skepticism about an NBA team's choosing to print "Brooklyn" on its jerseys. I can hardly believe that it is happening.

But for a quarter-century or more Brooklyn has enjoyed a renaissance. Prices of brownstone homes in its more desirable neighborhoods begin at about a million dollars. In these areas there seem to be two restaurants and one café on every block, a clothing boutique on every corner, and next to that a wine shop or fancy-furniture outlet. There are so many young women pushing strollers in my neighborhood that the single set is objecting that they are taking up too much space on the sidewalks and in the bistros and cafés. But these complainants have the option of moving to Williamsburg in the north of the borough, which has become the first neighborhood ever outside of Manhattan to be the hottest location in the city for hip young folks to live and play in.

And so, 113 years after "The Great Mistake of '98," it has become possible to read such a quote as this, from Nets' chief executive Brett Yormark:

"Brooklyn was easy, because we think Brooklyn is the brand. Brooklyn is iconic. It transcends the marketplace. In many respects, it's a global name and reference."

Hallelujah. Now let's invite back, for the first Brooklyn Nets game, everyone who ever played or worked for the Brooklyn Dodgers, except Peter O'Malley.