NEW YORK (AP) — Brooklyn returned to major pro sports on Saturday, welcomed back by some beloved former stars and ready to embrace the Nets the way it once did the Dodgers.
The Nets played their delayed first regular-season game at Barclays Center, two days after they were supposed to open against the New York Knicks. That was postponed by Superstorm Sandy that heavily damaged the city's mass-transit system, but the building seemed nearly full during a lively pregame ceremony despite lingering transportation troubles.
NBA Commissioner David Stern said he was honored to "celebrate the resiliency of this community" and to "welcome Brooklyn, USA to the NBA."
The Nets are the first major pro sports team to play in Brooklyn since the Dodgers left in 1957. Former Dodgers Ralph Branca and Joe Pignatano, a Brooklyn native, and Gil Hodges, Jr., whose father starred with the Dodgers, exchanged jerseys with Nets players.
The Nets were completely rebranded after moving from New Jersey, where they spent 35 years, with a new logo and black-and-white color scheme. Plagued by poor attendance during their final years in Jersey and rarely beloved in any of them, they may not have that problem in Brooklyn.
"Brooklyn is Brooklyn and Manhattan is New York, and Brooklyn has always been considered second class to Manhattan. But that's only Manhattan's thinking. Brooklyn's the best," Branca said. "I mean, the fans were the greatest, and I anticipate with the advent of the Nets coming here, a major league franchise coming here, they're going to have fans that are major league fans. If anything like the Dodgers fans, the Brooklyn Nets fans will be the same, loyal to the end."
Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov has vowed he will give Brooklyn a winner, saying when he bought the team his goal was to win a title in five years. The billionaire bachelor joked that since he's two years into his ownership and said he'd get married if he didn't meet his deadline that he was "maybe the most devoted guy for the championship."
But he was serious when talking about the effects of Sandy, which caused devastation around the region. Prokhorov flew to New York on Friday, feeling it was important to be here, and saying the disappointment over not being able to open with the highly anticipated game against the Knicks was "nothing compared to what people have suffered last few days."
"To those who made it out tonight for the game, thank you for the extra effort. And for those who wanted to be but couldn't, and maybe they are listening on the radio or watching on the TV, we really hope to take your mind off of problems for a few hours and really we are very glad you're with us in spirit," Prokhorov said during a pregame press conference.
"I think it's a great credit to this country and to the city that the game will go on in spite of all the problems."
The Dodgers players recalled that owner Walter O'Malley wanted to build a new stadium to replace Ebbets Field right across the street from the site where Barclays Center is on the corner of Atlantic and Flatbush, right above the Long Island Rail Road. That never materialized and they ended up moving across the country.
Brooklyn's been waiting for a team of its own ever since.
"I think it's a great day for the community," Prokhorov said.