A Brooklyn primer for the Bulls


Apr 19

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So what was the big deal about Brooklyn, anyway? Why do you hear about it so much, even before the monumental Bulls/Nets playoff series about to begin 7 p.m. CT Saturday, the first professional sports playoff series in Brooklyn since the Dodgers’ 1956 World Series?

Yes, a lot of famous people were from there, like Barbra Streisand, George Gershwin, Bobby Fischer, Eddie Murphy, Neil Diamond, Woody Allen, Jay-Z, Mike Tyson, Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Mel Brooks, Lena Horne, Jackie Gleason, Normal Mailer, Chris Rock, Spike Lee, Moe, Curly and Shemp from the Three or more Stooges and Bugs Bunny supposedly born under Ebbets Field, as the story goes. Though being a large part of New York City with about two million residents, the averages would suggest some notoriety for natives and residents.

I pretty much always have heard everyone I’ve known or met say where they grew up was a great place to grow up. This being, obviously, because those years require the least responsibility and you haven’t been around long enough to hear all that much bad news.

Growing up in Brooklyn, as I did, is unique not because I’m getting to write this but because we had no idea what Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn were talking about. There were no fishing holes or treks through the woods or camp outs or bar-b-ques with S’mores. That’s supposed to be the American experience, and we respected it even if no one could tell you which was on top, Kentucky or Tennessee, and which order was Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and Iowa.

I recall an older brother of a friend saying he was going to college in Indiana. Everyone seemed stunned. Going to college out of town meant NYU or Pace, the latter where I attended in Manhattan, or “the City,” as it was known to us. Hardly anyone ever went to “the City.” After all, Brooklyn had it all.

We went downtown Brooklyn, where the Nets are now, the terminus of the Long Island Railroad — Long Guyland as we said it — for rock and roll concerts at the Fox and Paramount. The big department stores were there down the street on Fulton, like A&S.

Growing up in a place like Brooklyn wasn’t better; it was different. By 11 or 12 years old, you were pretty comfortable on the buses and subways, then the IRT, BMT and IND. They’ve got a bunch of colorful numbers now, and if perhaps not the most aesthetically pleasing system in the U.S., it is the most efficient and effective. Get on after a Nets game to go home anywhere in the city. It’s safe despite my occasional jokes about it, if not necessarily picturesque.

What perhaps strikes you as much as anything being in Brooklyn is the food, or restaurants, though restaurant seems a bit formal for the sorts of places you encounter. There’s pizza, of course, on most every block. And not the thick loaves of bread wrapped in sauce you get in Chicago. To each his own taste. I’ve had many detailed debates about this with Nazr Mohammed, which perhaps explains our difference in size. Nazr’s dad drove a cab, and it was easy to pick up a pizza on the way home for the kids, and all that dough could hold you for awhile if the family budget wasn’t that great. I get it. Nazr recommends Giordano’s, by the way.

Though we never quite looked at it that way, the New York slice, which you fold with oil running down your arm in another unique Brooklyn tribute to informal wear, is best because there’s always room for dessert. No one eats like people from Brooklyn.

There probably is no sports arena in the world with as much to eat as the Nets’ Barclays.

They’ve got an egg cream stand. No eggs. It’s a Brooklyn drink made of milk, soda and syrup, usually chocolate. You top that off with an éclair, a long doughy pastry filled with custard.

You see, in Brooklyn, it’s the eclectic series of tastes. You wouldn’t call it gourmet, but you don’t get to describe it much as you generally are shouting fairly loudly while eating and in some sort of debate.

Living in Brooklyn, your general response is, “What siren?”

The car horns, the ambulances; they’re just elevator music for Brooklyn.

The Nets’ new arena is on the north end of the borough on Flatbush Avenue, which is the street that is the story of Brooklyn. You hear Taj Gibson say he grew up just over the Manhattan Bridge into Brooklyn, which is the Fort Greene neighborhood. The Barclays is a bit farther south along Flatbush Avenue, and then when you head farther south is Prospect Park, Brooklyn’s version of Central Park (yes, it has a zoo), where just east was Ebbets Field.

The entrance to the park from the north is the Grand Army Plaza, a vast intersection with a half dozen streets intersecting and all sorts of statues and memorials. But it always was one reason I was proud to be from Brooklyn, which didn’t become part of New York City, by the way, until almost 1900.

Brooklyn was one of the great abolitionist enclaves in the north and great supporter of Abraham Lincoln. The famous Monitor ironclad was built there. Lincoln personally called up regiments from Brooklyn given their support for the Union cause. The Grand Army Plaza monuments celebrated the Union victory.

But it was the Dodgers, to most, who defined Brooklyn, the famed team that was not only was one of the pioneers of American baseball, but reflected the virtues and hopes of sporting fans with their wait until next year ethic.

The Dodgers were originally the Brooklyn Bridegrooms, that eras more simple ethic that several players had recently been married. They evolved into the Superbas briefly and then the Trolley Dodgers as fans literally were dodging the trolleys that would run in front of Ebbets Field and then shortened to Dodgers. They became the Robins for a while in the name of their successful manager, Wil Robinson, and then went back to Dodgers.

It was after the 1957 season when they left, and Ebbets Field was torn down to become an apartment building. Old Brooklyn natives and residents mostly don’t forgive.

Actually, then owner Walter O’Malley had tried to build a new stadium where the Nets’ arena is now at Atlantic and Flatbush avenues. But he was prevented from doing so by the powerful city planner then who wanted to develop the Queens site where the Mets eventually built Shea Stadium. So O’Malley left and persuaded the Giants, playing in Harlem in upper Manhattan across from Yankee Stadium in the Bronx, to join him. As difficult as it was for Brooklynites, it was the most astute sports financial move of the century.

But you don’t get deterred in Brooklyn, where George Washington fought the most extensive battle of the Revolutionary War, losing, actually. Though Washington’s escape to Manhattan overnight was generally considered one of his greatest achievements and enabled his army to keep from being conquered and to fight again. Eventually, the British would finally leave Brooklyn in the Paris treaty in 1783.

And, fortunately, they didn’t leave their food, which as my old colleague, Bernie Lincicome called it, “pets in a pie.”

No, in Brooklyn, we had Ebinger’s bakery, Good Humor and Bungalow Bar ice cream trucks, Dubrow’s cafeteria and the Horn and Hardart Automat where you put coins in to release a glass window to get your food. Food, always food. Exotic was chow mein at the New China Inn. Yes, on Flatbush Avenue. There were carts that sold knishes, famous Nathan’s hot dogs at Coney Island, where every Tuesday night all summer was fireworks. Junior’s, which still is just a few blocks down from the Barklays, where you do get the real New York Cheesecake. The black and white cookie made famous in Seinfeld. Yup, ate them down the middle like Jerry to get white and black. There were the Nedick’s hot dogs on the buttery roll I still remember Jackie Robinson representing. We bought them because Jackie said they were good.

We played all our sports in the streets — yes, you stopped for passing cars — with a Spalding rubber ball. Two sewers was a stickball or punch ball home run. You played skelly with soda caps on the sidewalk and stoopball throwing the ball against the steps to a row house. Parks? There weren’t many, and no one ever saw a net until we got to high school.

But, ya know, it was Brooklyn. What, you got a problem with that!

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