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Brooklyn basketball finally means something

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Four years ago tonight, Barclays Center opened in Brooklyn with the first of eight Jay-Z shows. A lot has happened since then, As the Nets start practicing for year five in the borough, Anthony Puccio has noticed a change. It's not just about Brooklyn. It's about Brooklyn basketball.

Whitehead and Atkinson at Coney Island Brooklyn Nets

A big part of the culture change in Brooklyn comes with knowing how special basketball is inside the boroughs.

There’s a different vibe that comes with playing in the Big Apple, from a young age all the way up to the pros. Former Net Kenny Anderson’s story is the perfect example.

Culture change occurs with values from the people within. People who know what it’s like to be here; people that know the different animal that New York City basketball is.

This makes the hiring of Kenny Atkinson that much more special. He may be a Long Island native, but Atkinson’s convinced us that he’s well aware of what basketball means to the borough, embracing the term ‘grit’ to describe individual players and what he hopes to get out of his team. Atkinson has moved into a Brooklyn apartment, encouraged his team to live in the borough as well.

So, what does this mean?

From experience, just playing AAU basketball or a simple pickup games in the park in Brooklyn – there’s no feeling like it. It’s different. It’s tough. It’s… gritty.

One time my AAU team was set to play a pickup game in Long Island versus a team from Brooklyn. Except, we didn’t know they were from Brooklyn before the game. We found out as 8 players and one coach jumped out of a minivan doing the ‘Brooo-klyn’ chant. This was well before the Brooklyn Nets arrived.

The point of the story is to show that Brooklyn ballers are a different breed. They bleed Brooklyn. It’s a pride thing.

So, the Nets, in a rebuilding phase decided to spend the second highest amount of money ever ($3 million) on a second-round draft pick: Isaiah Whitehead.

The old Nets might have thought of it as a risk. Coney Island players haven't exactly been exemplary. Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair, Lance Stephenson -- all have had issues, from being ego-maniacal to being arrested.

Whitehead is different from his fellow Lincoln High School alumni. As Sean Marks said of Whitehead the night he was drafted, ""tenacity, his professionalism ... For us he embodies what Brooklyn grit is about."

They’re willing to take the risk without seeing it as a risk, rather something that could turn into a great story for a local guy who wants to make good. The pride of the city.

And it's under local boy and head coach Kenny Atkinson.

Atkinson is somebody who understands what it’s like to play in Brooklyn, and what the history of Brooklyn basketball means, telling reporters at his introductory press conference: "Brooklyn is basketball."

Fast forward to Tuesday's initial practice of the initial training camp in the borough.

In year’s past, the Nets have twice gone to Billy King’s alma mater Duke for training camp, a way to supposedly increase chemistry among teammates, get them AWAY from the "distractions" of New York.

This year, the Nets are at the HSS Training Center in Brooklyn and Atkinson does something rather unique. Like the great teacher he is – he brought in a guest speaker: Brooklyn native Chris Mullin. Mullin played at Xaverian High School, then St. John’s before embarking on a Hall of Fame career. He is currently the head coach of the Johnnies ... and still has that Brooklyn accent..

"I’m good friends with Kenny. We go way back. Just here to support him and support Brooklyn,’’ said Mullin, who estimated he has known Atkinson since "the early ’90s. … I was living on Long Island in the off-season, so I used to play out there in the offseason. So I’ve got a lot of respect for him, great guy. We text back-and-forth.

"He put his time in. He’s one of those guys, a gym-rat. If he wasn’t in the NBA, he’d be coaching somewhere because he just loves the game, and does it for the right reasons. I’m happy for him; he’s a really good guy." said Mullin.

"For him, Brooklyn-born, Brooklyn-bred, Xaverian, great player, I wanted him to say hello to our players." Atkinson responded. "[Mullin] was born in Brooklyn and was a great player, coach at St. John’s. It’s just good for our players to be aware of the history of Brooklyn basketball, and he’s obviously one of the pillars, best players ever."

It’s like having a guest speaker for one of your classes, especially one who succeeded wildly in your field. Some teachers go with the flow, and others take a "learners" interest and go the extra mile with the "guest speaker". On Tuesday it was Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, who took tips from Mullin about his offensive game. To conclude his day, Mullin described skill development as one of Kenny’s ‘strong backgrounds’.  One of the others is an appreciation for home.

"I was thinking the other day like "Brooklyn is basketball," he said back in May. "When my dad grew up, it was the Brooklyn Dodgers. They were here. When I grew up, it was Pearl Washington, Ed Davender, all the greats, Chris Mullin. Brooklyn really spoke to me, and man, I'm gonna go into the park in Brooklyn and play basketball. "

It all sticks together. For the first time since moving to the borough, Brooklyn is proud on the court instead of off the court. You understood the marketing tactics, especially for a new team with hip new colors at their luxurious new arena. In order to build a fanbase, you have to promote your strongest sell. For the Nets, it was obviously the push of Brooklyn, the hippest place on the planet.

Take the first two slogans for example: "Hello Brooklyn" and "Brooklyn’s backcourt". Everything was about Brooklyn, yet nothing on the court screamed Brooklyn basketball. A player and leader like Deron Williams, often pouty and usually shying away from the pressure. Not very Brooklyn.

As a fan of basketball, it was disappointing. Sure, there were the jerseys, the injections of, "Where Brooklyn At?" and "Brook-lyn" but Brooklyn basketball? Nope

So this year, we will learn about Brooklyn basketball. More than half the team lives in Brooklyn, encouraged to do so by their coach. There's a player who loves the idea of being a hometown hero, a hometown role model.  Marketing and selling is important, and the Nets are marketing Whitehead and the team's two other New Yorkers -- Chris McCullough and Sean Kilpatrick. But there's also an understanding fans want something not so stage-managed. They want effort, they want grit, they want tears.  They want Brooklyn basketball.