Fast Break: the Nets Give a Park an Instant Makeover

The team and Barclays Center come to the rescue of basketball courts in a Brooklyn playground named for a slain youth

Players from the Brooklyn Nets and youth-program members celebrate the renovation of the courts at Nicholas Naquan Heyward Jr. Park in Boerum Hill (Photos by Steve Koepp)

Only three weeks ago, the two basketball courts next to the Gowanus Houses in Boerum Hill were dilapidated, riddled with cracks, and appearing every bit like they hadn’t been renovated in 25 years. Today, they looked totally fresh and clean, with new pavement, surface paint, backboards, hoops, nets and drinking fountains. Plus a quartet of towering NBA players on hand to give it credibility.

At a ribbon cutting attended by VIPs from around the neighborhood and borough, Martin Maher, the commissioner for Brooklyn’s city parks, said that if the parks department had done the project itself, the makeover might have cost $1 million–and, he joked, taken five years to complete. Instead, the charitable foundations associated with the Brooklyn Nets and Barclays Center got it done in less than a month and covered the $324,000 cost.

The ribbon cutting: Nicholas Naquan Heyward Jr.’s father (third from left) said his son dreamed of being a professional basketball player or a doctor

Yet the mood of the ceremony was bittersweet because the one-acre park containing the two courts, Nicholas Naquan Heyward Jr. Park, is named for a 13-year-old boy who was shot and killed by police as he played with friends in the stairwell of the Gowanus Houses in 1994. (The officer involved was not charged.) The reopening of the courts became a moment to celebrate his memory and honor the work his father, Nicholas Heyward Sr., has done since his son’s death in organizing basketball tournaments and other programs at the park. “The family turned tragedy into a tremendously positive thing for this neighborhood,” said Maher.

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Heyward’s son has not been forgotten. Every year on his birthday, Aug. 26, the community gathers for a day of remembrance at the park, organized by his memorial foundation. “He wanted to be a professional basketball player and he was practicing his skills right here on this playground. He also wanted to be a doctor,” he father told the crowd. Heyward took advantage of the turnout of city officials to give them a heads up that he has plans for more programs. “Our youths and our seniors have always been important to me,” he said. The Gowanus Houses, part of the NYC Housing Authority, is a big community, with 1,134 units.

Brett Yormark, CEO of Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, chats with young basketball fans

Brett Yormark, CEO of Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, which owns the Nets and operates Barclays Center, noted that the park is less than a mile from the arena and thus a fitting place to take care of. “It’s always been a priority of ours to positively impact our surrounding communities,” he said. In this case, the Nets have not just fixed up a playground, but subtly adopted it, highlighting the basketball-court surface with the team colors of black and white.

Finally, after enduring the official ceremony, the kids get to take over the courts

Instead of the usual green motif of the NYC parks logo, the court is highlighted with team colors

The park was named in 2001 for Nicholas Naquan Heyward Jr., a 13-year-old boy who was shot and killed by police in the Gowanus Houses

Steve Koepp is the editor of The Bridge. Previously, he was editorial director of Time Inc. Books, executive editor of Fortune and deputy managing editor of Time.