Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Synergy! Thanks to Barclays/Nets money, the Brooklyn Historical Society highlights ex-Net (and arena promoter) Albert King in new sports curriculum

Last week and this one I'll try to compensate slightly for the failure of any metro columnists to show up and glean insights from the rich spectacle of the Barclays Center groundbreaking March 11.

One element of the "goodie bag" that guests got to take home was a CD containing samples from Bats, Balls, Nets and Hoops: Stories of Sports in Brooklyn, the latest in a series of educational curriculum kits from the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS).

It was a nice piece of synergy and a sign that the BHS, like the Brooklyn Museum and the Brooklyn Academy of Music, is another elite Brooklyn institution likely to show fealty to Forest City Ratner and Barclays Capital.

(The generosity in the form of donations, of course, is far less than the subsidies, tax breaks, and other concessions granted by the public to the donors. Heck, FCR was given the arena naming rights to sell to Barclays.)

Albert King front and center

On the cover of the CD--custom-produced for the occasion--was Brooklyn-born basketball player Albert King, a former New Jersey Net.

And there he was, featured on two of the six tracks.

(Click on graphics to enlarge)

And there were logos from Barclays and the Nets, along with an announcement of funding from the Barclays/Nets Community Alliance, which initially focused on renovating playgrounds, aiming at a different neighborhood demographic.

King, of course, was prominently featured by the Nets at the groundbreaking (and in the Brooklyn Paper's cutesy video). And he's also the most prominent athlete featured (left) in the "basketball-themed sample" on the BHS web site.

Albert King, though a Net for six years, was not as successful a professional hoopster as his older brother Bernard, a three-year Net and four-time All-Star, who initially was a key part of the Atlantic Yards promotion. Then again, Albert doesn't have Bernard's baggage, as the latter was dropped by Forest City Ratner as a spokesman after he was accused of beating his wife. (He avoided jail time and battery charges by agreeing to counseling.)

King is a great Brooklyn basketball player, but it sure doesn't look like a coincidence. Indeed, BHS spokeswoman Allison Auldridge told me that the CD was not a BHS promo for the curriculum but rather a custom creation for the event.

I think the distinction is pretty blurry; after all, the individuals on the custom CD also appear on the BHS web site.

What Barclays gave

How much was the contribution?

Auldridge wouldn't specify, other than saying that the Barclays/Nets Alliance funded the curriculum "through a generous grant." Also, thanks to a Barclays Capital grant, BHS for the first time can offer free guided museum tours for school groups.

I can see why the chronically underfunded BHS would welcome such a donation, but shouldn't it also be careful about being used?

About the curriculum

BHS on its web site (graphic at right) describes the project:
Organized around four case studies, the kit is packed with more than 50 primary source documents from the BHS archives, including newspaper articles, photographs and oral histories of Brooklyn athletes born between the 1920s and 1950s. Each case study comes in a separate folder with critical thinking questions and document-analysis activities to help students observe, question, analyze and interpret the material.
Take a listen and yes, there's BHS President Deborah Schwartz telling us that the project is "made possible by generous funding by Barclays/Nets Community Alliance.

Overhyping Albert King

In the initial text for the web site (above) and Schwartz's intro, Albert King was described as playing professional basketball for the Nets from 1981 to 1989.

It hinted at a seamless give-and-go: Fort Greene-born King to the New Jersey Nets, and back to Brooklyn and the Nets.

However, King didn't spend all his pro career in New Jersey. He played for the Nets from 1981 to 1987, then played for three other teams.

It's a small but tellingly careless error; this is a historical society. I alerted BHS to the error and they fixed the designation on the web site (left) but not in Schwartz's intro.

Beyond that, the section titled "Albert King and the Nets" has very little to do with the Nets per se; rather, it contains his reflections on having made it to the professional league.

A historian might have called the section "Albert King in the NBA."

Albert King: triumph and banality

King's recollections are generally banal, suggesting that "there's nothing like playing basketball in the neighborhood," where, if you won, you got to stay on the court. "When you're on the court, you become someone."

(At right, a screenshot of the BHS Twitter feed.)

"The big thing was; everyone wanted to fulfill that dream of playing professional basketball," King said, adding that "it was the greatest feeling in the world [to be drafted]."

Acknowledging that few players make it to the NBA, he reflects that, "two from the same family made it, you don't find it that often, so it definitely was a blessing."

He does not, however, reflect on whether it's a healthy or realistic dream for many.

Hardscrabble hoops

If the BHS wants to educate young Brooklynites on basketball, it should send them to books like Rick Telander's Heaven is a Playground Darcy Frey's The Last Shot, and Ian O'Connor's The Jump: Sebastian Telfair and the High-Stakes Business of High School Ball, as well as Spike Lee's movie He Got Game.

Each of those works contains a considerable cautionary tale, portraying the intersection between basketball and poverty, talent and the streets, the love of the game and the people who want to monetize it.

In fact, Telander's book describes 14-year-old Albert King, a prodigious talent besieged by people who want a piece of him, as "wary, edgy, and continually on the watch for false motives."

Brooklyn's rainbow

Also appearing on the BHS CD is Alan Fishman, a banker also identified as Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Brooklyn Community Foundation, and he has some worthy reflections.

You learn a lot of lessons from sports, he says, such as whether someone plays fair or not.

And he offers a telling anecdote from his days at Erasmus Hall High School, where the basketball players used to hang their practice shirts on wire-mesh windows to dry.

"After a while, it would smell so bad you'd have to take it home" for laundry, he said, noting that people inevitably took each other's shirts. "Five white guys... two Italians, two Jews, four black guys, one Latino guy, and you're all wearing each other's t-shirts. That's the way you grow up. We all stunk. it's really an amazing metaphor for what Brooklyn was."

AY watchers should recall that he's also been a steady backer of the project from his positions as the chairman of the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Downtown Brooklyn Partnership, as noted by Michael D.D. White in his Noticing New York blog. Maybe that's helped him get included on the promo CD.

Rounding out the CD

The rest of the sample CD includes longtime elected official (and current Council Member from Bedford-Stuyvesant) Member Albert Vann, reflecting that "basketball became a very important activity for me... friendships and relationships developed from that activity... It probably kept me out of trouble to a great extent."

Was Vann's inclusion a politic decision?

Though not a basketball player, Mary DeSaussure Sobers is included, apparently for reasons of gender equity and racial history, and her story is important.

In 1945, she won a Gold medal for the 40-yard dash at a Borough-wide track meet in Madison Square Garden, breaking a color line, and went on to found the Trail Blazers, New York City’s first track-and-field club for African American girls.

The need for critical thinking

According to the web site, Bats, Balls, Nets and Hoops includes:
Critical thinking questions and document-analysis activities to help students observe, question, analyze and interpret the material.
Auldridge told me, "Our education staff is working very hard on this curriculum and we hope to have it available in late spring or early summer."

Well, if they're working on critical thinking, they could start with the cover of the package (below) distributed at the groundbreaking that included the CD, then move on to the naming rights issue.

1 comment:

  1. Also remember that the BHS was one of two sites for the "Brooklyn Utopias" exhibit. along with my photos, there were other Atlantic Yards related work in the show:

    http://freakinblog.com/2009/09/27/brooklyn-utopias-opening-reception-october-1st/

    ReplyDelete