For a time in April, at the height of the COVID-19 crisis in New York, the white trucks were visible from the eighth floor windows of the HSS Training Center. The most dominant feature of that spectacular view was not the majestic New York skyline, but instead a line of refrigerator trucks in the vast parking lot across Brooklyn’s 39th Street ... mobile morgues filled with bodies that were piling up at the city’s hospitals, too many to be buried or cremated immediately.
The horror was there for everyone to see —including those who drove to HSS to get ready to play a sport...
Brooklyn was a charnel house in the age of COVID-19, the epicenter along with Queens of a plague that swept around the world. As of Thursday, more than 5,000 Brooklynites had died, another 57,000 had been infected.
No place in the world has been so affected to this day.
Jarrett Allen, one of six players who stayed in the city throughout it all, recalled those dark early days of the pandemic. Brooklynites’ senses, including his own, were dominated by “the empty streets, the sirens” — the constant wail of ambulances rushing the sick and dying to overwhelmed hospitals along once vibrant, now deserted streets.
Of course, the team that represents the borough did not go unscathed. From a tense flight home from San Francisco where anxious players filled out questionnaires on their health to testing on arrival, the illness stalked the players, coaches, staff. The dark humor is that the Nets lead the league in one category: antibodies. Nine Nets have tested positive for coronavirus since March and at least one, Spencer Dinwiddie, developed symptoms. The identities of all those infected remain undisclosed or unconfirmed. Like the borough, no NBA team has been more affected, more devastated.
Then, there’s that other part of the history: the generosity of the team, from the owner to the players, in helping the borough, city and state get through it all.
Joe and Clara Wu Tsai agreed to pay all the team and arena workers through the crisis, donated five tons of food, provided 2,000 much needed ventilators (at a cost of $7 million) to New York just as infections and deaths peaked. In addition, the two working with Tsai’s business partner, Jack Ma, flew 1.5 million N95 respirators, 1.45 million surgical masks and 170,000 medical goggles into the beleaguered city. Most of that wound up in Brooklyn. The governors of New York and New Jersey graciously thanked them.
Kyrie Irving, much maligned often unfairly, has also given much, providing a million dollars in relief to food banks in New York and the Standing Rock Sioux tribe in the Dakotas. Dzanan Musa bought medical supplies for his hometown hospital after Bosnia’s first COVID death. Sean Marks has said there have other “behind the scenes” efforts by players that haven’t come to light.
Of course, Brooklyn’s place in this year of history didn’t end as the infection rate and deaths began to drop. At the end of May, as Americans viewed with disgust and horror the video of George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, Brooklyn —and Barclays Center— became a worldwide focus once again.
The sirens returned but this time the streets were full.
Demonstrators arrived by foot and subway to gather on the arena entrance plaza to protest ... and face off with police. As many as 5,000 filled the plaza every night for a week. The Nets home was on the front pages and screens around the world. Police massed on Dean Street. Helicopters and drones hung overhead like noisy, too-close stars. Then, things turned ugly.
NYPD advance from barclays center to target in Atlantic terminal pic.twitter.com/d171QsmRdY— The Kominas (@TheRealKominas) June 1, 2020
Barclays Center is surroundedpic.twitter.com/MsDZ9YnME4— Billy Reinhardt (@BillyReinhardt) June 1, 2020
Our own Matt Brooks chronicled his experiences near the intersection of Flatbush and Atlantic...
That night was a restless one. My entire perception was flipped. The powers that were entrusted with protecting us, they’d do anything but that –– protect us –– if you looked a certain way or represented a specific division of people. As a white man, you always heard about racial inequality and systemic oppression. But that was it: you just heard about it. You weren’t educated on it as a child. You weren’t thrust onto the frontlines to battle it. You just heard about it. That’s disgusting and it needs to change. Education should represent the totality of our population’s history.
That first day, and pardon me if any of this sounds ignorant, I experienced a sliver of a fraction of what it’s like to be targeted by authorities.
And it was terrifying.
Again, the organization decided it wanted to be heard. In a statement issued on May 31 — after two days of protests at Barclays Center— Joe and Clara Tsai, joined by their sports executives, said “Enough is enough” and called for “a peaceful response” to the crisis gripping New York and the nation.
The statement was noteworthy in that it did not limit the organizations’ indignation to the the death of George Floyd alone. Instead, it discussed the broader issue of racism.
“Today, we stand up and speak up against all forms of racial discrimination —overt or subconscious— especially against the Black community. We want to say, ‘Enough is enough.’”
A week later, Tsai gave his tacit approval to the use of the plaza for political protests, telling the Daily News, “If it continues to serve as a place where everyone from our community – from residents to businesses to police alike – gather peacefully to listen to each other and find common ground, then it’s good with me.”
Barclays Center had become Brooklyn’s “accidental town square.”
Advertising was removed from the arena’s oculus screen, replaced by a quote from Martin Luther King. It’s still there. At the other end of the plaza, a quote from the activist Angela Davis suddenly and mysteriously appeared over the entrance to the subway, itself the scene of violent confrontations between protests and police. An “anonymous partner” paid for it.
Then, Kyrie moved to the center of the storm, demanding social justice, suggesting a boycott of the “bubble” might better serve the players’ goals. discussing with his teammates, fellow NBA players and union members what should be done. He took his hits, but didn’t apologize, didn’t back down. Just this week, he set up a $1.5 million fund to help WNBA players who for whatever reason decided against joining the “wubble.” In Brooklyn, he’s what’s called a mensch.
Now, it appears the worst is behind us ... or so we hope. The Nets, deleted but not yet defeated, are getting ready for the first game of the restart.
So what’s been lost in the interim since that night back in March? Thousands of lives, physical and mental health, jobs both grand and menial, innocence, perhaps naivete, too. But this is Brooklyn, the stuff of legends, the hometown of Spike Lee and Dr. Anthony Fauci, Jay-Z and Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld and Roger Kahn, Biggie and George Gershwin. Somehow, resilience wins out. Will it work out for the Brooklyn Nets? Will good karma and justice prevail? The pundits are unanimous in the negative, but...
“It’s always been something for me to represent Brooklyn,” Jarrett Allen said Thursday, speaking of the nearly three million. “I stayed in during the pandemic. I went out to protest. I’ve been around Brooklyn giving back to the community. I’ve been with the team giving my heart and soul for them.
“I’m here for them.”