Back on September 27, 1994, a 13-year-old boy named Nicholas Naquan Heyward, Jr. was playing cops and robbers with some friends, a childhood classic everywhere.
Nicholas and his friends were playing in the stairwell of the Gowanus Houses where he lived with his parents and his brother, using plastic toy guns with bright orange-colored tips and handles. Unfortunately, that night would be Nicholas’ last as he was shot in the stomach by a Housing Police Officer and subsequently died at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Manhattan that night.
An investigation by the district attorney determined it was a “tragic accident” but seven years later, the nearby Gowanus Houses Playground was named after Nathan. in his honor. Since the incident, toy guns have been removed from many stores and laws have grown stricter regarding how they’re handled, sold and distributed, an effort led by his family-run foundation.
This year, the Brooklyn Nets donated a large sum of money and spearheaded the reconstruction of the basketball courts in the playground. The renovations complete, Nets players D’Angelo Russell, DeMarre Carroll, Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen as well as Kenny Atkinson, Sean Marks and Brett Yormark were on hand Friday for the grand re-opening of the new courts.
“Any opportunity for the Brooklyn Nets to collaborate with the community, to be involved with the community, in this case, obviously the courts, is terrific,” Marks told NetsDaily in a rare appearance outside Barclays Center and HSS Training Center. “This is what we’re all about. It’s a great event for our players. They enjoy being able to give back, especially for them because it probably resonates with where they grew up playing on courts, probably pretty similar to this. When they’re able to give back to the youngsters, I think it’s terrific.”
Also at the playground re-dedication was Nathan’s father who talked about how his son, an honor student and an active member in the Church of God. He had goals of becoming a gynecologist or a professional basketball player, his dad said, the Nets players listening nearby.
Nicholas Naquan Heyward Sr, whose son was killed by police in 1994 at 13, speaks at the @BrooklynNets assisted reconstructed park named after his son in Gowanus. #Brooklyn #Nets @NetsDaily pic.twitter.com/49r6AUFYMa— Bryan Fonseca ️ (@BryanFonsecaNY) December 1, 2017
Nathan’s legacy is everywhere in the neighborhood, not far from where several of the Nets players live. In 1998 a community mural program named Groundswell, along with local neighbors, created a mural in his memory on Baltic Street. A candlelit vigil is held annually in the location on the anniversary of his death, one month after his August 26 birthday.
On his birthday, Gowanus children congregate in the park for recreational activities for children, like basketball games, as well as toy exchanges where toy guns can be swapped for books and other toy items. It’s all part of the family foundation’s mission, ‘instilling creative thought in the minds of youths and giving positive support to children from all communities.’
Joined by Brooklyn Parks Commissioner Martin Maher and many of the children in attendance, the Nets cut the ribbon.
.@Dloading, @DeMarreCarroll1, @_bigjayy_, @CarisLeVert and Kenny Atkinson of @BrooklynNets assist in cutting the ribbon at Nicholas Naquan Hayward Jr park in Gowanus. #Nets @NetsDaily pic.twitter.com/z9E8sCfNer— Bryan Fonseca ️ (@BryanFonsecaNY) December 1, 2017
“We’ve got a great group of guys and our they realize how important the community is,” said Marks. “These are our fans; this is who we’re playing for. Anytime we can do events like this, we’re not having to pull guys along (to participate), it’s easier for them to come and they want to be here. It makes everybody’s life easier. I’m never involved pushing them to come to these events, these guys want to do this, these guys want to give back. The players want to be here.”
"It means a lot to the community and the youth that the Brooklyn Nets had some part in this," said Nicholas Heyward Sr.
The mood, in fact, was uplifting for the players as well as the young fans who showed up to meet their hometown Brooklyn heroes.
.@_bigjayy_, @DeMarreCarroll1, @Dloading, @CarisLeVert, @brettyormark & @BrooklynNets with the kids at the new look Nicholas Naquan Hayward Jr Park. #Nets #Brooklyn @NetsDaily pic.twitter.com/pszSrSyeVE— Bryan Fonseca ️ (@BryanFonsecaNY) December 1, 2017
And for and others in the community, it’s another way of keeping his spirit alive ... “in our hearts forever.”
It’s what community service is about.