By John Torenli
Brooklyn Daily Eagle
Decades from now, when the Nets are as much a part of Brooklyn's landscape as the bridges that link us with that other borough across the East River, there will be much more than 17,732 people who will recall being at the Barclays Center for the return of major pro sports to the corners of Atlantic and Flatbush Avenues in the wake of Superstorm Sandy.
So for those who were fortunate and brave enough to fight through the traffic, transit delays, felled electricity cables and mind-numbing lines for gasoline, hang on to your ticket stub. It's proof positive that you were there the night Brookyn changed forever.
"I think one of the greatest things that this borough has gotten is the Nets," said lifelong Brooklyn resident Gil Hodges Jr., the son of the beloved former Dodgers first baseman and Mets manager, who was joined by former Brooklyn Bum greats Ralph Branca and Joe Pignatano at a press conference just prior to the opening tip of the Nets' eventual 107-100 victory over the Toronto Raptors.
"I can remember being young and seeing these gentlemen with my dad and how the fans embraced the Dodgers," Hodges Jr. added. "I have a feeling it's going to be the same with the Nets. I think everyone is going to be quite surprised when they see what occurs."
What occured was an evening of fantastic firsts for a franchise that has wallowed in virtual obscurity in parts of Long Island and New Jersey for the better part of the previous four-plus decades.
Deron Williams, the Nets' $100 million All-Star point guard, drained his first jumper from the left elbow just 18 seconds after center Brook Lopez won the opening tip. With 6:47 remaining in the first quarter, sharpshooter Joe Johnson, the two-guard acquired from Atlanta by general manager Billy King during his $300 million summer spending spree, connected for the Nets' first 3-pointer in their new building off a feed from Williams.
But while history-making shots were being noted and recorded, no one could have imagined the amazing energy and fortitude of a crowd that stood as one throughout much of the contest, urging on their new hometown team and chanting "Brook-lyn!, Brook-lyn!" nearly every time the Nets needed a lift.
"This was such a huge night," gushed coach Avery Johnson after improving to 1-0 in his new building. "I can't even list all the reasons why. We're in Brooklyn now and it's a big difference. You saw the crowd tonight under difficult circumstances. They stood up for us right from the starting lineup and chanted "Brook-lyn!" all night. I'm glad that I was a part of this historic game. I am just so thrilled to be a part of it."
"It was very intense from the start, even just pulling into the arena, with fans holding up signs welcoming us," added Johnson, who revealed that he and many of his teammates had spent the moments leading up to the big game scrambling to find accomodations for their family and friends due to the havoc wreaked by Sandy. "Brooklyn's been ready for this for a long time."
The Raptors certainly appeared primed to play spoiler in their Brooklyn debut, running out to a 35-27 lead after the opening period before the Nets opened the second with a quick 12-2 spurt that had the building rocking.
Minority owner and Brooklyn hip-hop icon Jay-Z was seated next to the Nets' bench with our borough's unofficial first lady, Beyonce. Both joined in the "Brook-lyn!" chant as the dimly lit arena bounced with excitement when the Nets began to assume control of the contest, which wasn't decided until Williams sank a series of late free throws to take the fight out of the determined Raptors.
"I thought the crowd was great tonight," marveled Williams, who finished with 19 points and nine assists before receving the game ball from coach Johnson.. "We started off the game slow, but towards the end they had a great chant that really got us going."
Perhaps it was fitting that the longest-tenured Net, five-year veteran Lopez, enjoyed the biggest night.
After missing all but five games last season with a series of foot and ankle injuries, the 7-foot comic-book aficianado from Stanford played super hero on the evening the Nets revealed their new mascot, The BrooklyKnight, who was repelled down to the court prior to the game in a dramatic entrance.
Lopez finished with 27 points on 8-of-17 shooting and made 11 free throws to send the Nets into Monday night's home game against Minnesota with an as yet unblemished record.
“We wanted to make a statement. This is our home floor," insisted Lopez. “It was pretty amazing, especially the crowd. Their energy was amazing the whole night. They made the game for us.Everyone got me the ball where it was easy to put it in. I was a little disappointed with my rebounding. But the team game was fantastic and that’s the most important thing.”
Williams, Lopez and forward Gerald Wallace took part in a jersey-swapping ceremony with Branca, Pignatano and Hodges Jr. in the pregame ceremony, marking the passing of the torch from Brooklyn's old team to its brand, spanking new one. Borough President Marty Markowitz noted "How Sweet it is!" to have a team to call all our own before the 17,000-plus in attendance took over.
"They haven’t had a major league team in Brooklyn for 55 years," noted Branca, who is remembered for surrendering the most heartbreaking homer in the history of our borough in 1951 to the Giants' Bobby Thomson. "Brooklyn’s always been considered second-class to Manhattan, but that’s Manhattan’s problem. Brooklyn’s the best. If Nets fans are anything like Dodger fans, they’ll be loyal to the end.”
They certainly were nothing short of that Saturday night.
Even Toronto coach Dwane Casey admitted beforehand that his team would be facing a tremendous challenge in trying to escape Brooklyn with a victory.
"We just have to weather the initial storm," Casey said, referring to the building's energy on a once-in-a-lifetime night.
We've done some weathering of our own here over the past week. And hopefully, when things get back to some sense of normalcy, we'll remember the night the Nets began a new chapter in their history, as well as ours.
"Those who made it out to the game, thank you for the extra effort," said Nets billionaire owner Mikhail Prokhorov. " We really hope to take your mind off your problems for a few hours. I think it’s a great credit to this country, and this city, that the game will go on.”