Playing ball with Ratner

The Brooklyn Paper
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Eighty elementary-school athletes showed their mettle on the court this week during a two-day basketball camp led by former Knicks star forward Bernard King.

But the sheer joy of the Brooklyn school kids, ages 10 to 12, belied a public relations battle being waged over the efforts of the camp’s sponsor, Forest City Ratner, to bring the New Jersey Nets to an arena that the company’s owner, developer Bruce Ratner, wants to build at Atlantic and Flatbush avenues.

Opponents of Ratner’s plan to build the 19,000-seat arena and a towering residential and commercial complex stretching into Prospect Heights say the event was nothing more than a exploitation of the youths intended to fan public support for the development, which would displace hundreds of residents and merchants.

But spokesmen for Ratner say the company wants to reach out to the entire New York metropolitan area and added that similar camps are planned this summer. Additionally, they said, discounted tickets to Brooklyn Nets games would be available to youth groups as would gymnasium space if the development comes to include an amateur facility, as reported in The Brooklyn Papers last week.

“These are the type of things that kids remember the rest of the school year,” said Keith Lewis, executive director of Youth America, which helped organize the camp with Forest City Ratner. “And for it to be knocked, I don’t think they understand what makes impressions on young people.”

Parents who came to the gym on Tuesday and Wednesday to watch their children dribble, pass and shoot, learning from the former Knicks great, said nothing but good could come from a day or two of physical activity.

The kids? Well, they loved it.

They gathered at Pratt Institute’s Athletic Recreation Center in Clinton Hill to learn basketball tips from King, one of New York’s most cherished athletes. And as much as he taught them court skills, the 6-foot-7, 205-pound All-Star forward spoke to the budding B-ballers about the importance of education.

In between the small talk, he and a cadre of coaches, including Dwayne “Tiny” Morton, coach of Lincoln HS basketball star Sebastian Telfair, instructed 10-minute shooting and dribbling drills. Filmmaker Spike Lee and former Knicks guard John Starks were also on hand.

Anton Dickerson, a shy 12-year-old from PS 307 in Vinegar Hill, said his favorite part of the camp was learning how to shoot lay-ups.

“I like how they teach how to lay-up the ball,” said Dickerson who said he hopes the Nets move to Brooklyn one day. “And now I know what leg to shoot with, too.”

If that wasn’t enough, all 80 of the kids were treated to a basketball game at the Continental Airlines Arena, in New Jersey, where they watched the Milwaukee Bucks defeat the Nets, 103-98.

Ratner agreed to purchase the Nets in January for $300 million. He is awaiting NBA approval of the sale.

Asked what role he plays in the Brooklyn Nets effort, King, who grew up in Fort Greene and led the league in scoring in the 1984-85 season with the Knicks, said he was “an adviser” to Ratner. “We also want to assure to these kids that there are people who genuinely care about them,” he added.

Opponents believe the outreach is hollow and meant simply to bolster support in neighborhoods that have yet to sound off on the development plans, which would relocate more than 300 residents of Prospect Heights. The neighborhoods surrounding the Pratt Institute, where most of the children go to school, would not be directly affected by the plan.

Sisters Patti and Shellie Hagan, two vocal opponents of the development, showed up at the event, much to the chagrin of some of the parents and organizers. Patti Hagan, president of the Prospect Heights Action Coalition, said she was upset about the camp organizers’ selection of just six public schools in Fort Greene, Clinton Hill and Prospect Heights from hundreds in Brooklyn.

She also questioned why most, if not all, the children were black. Hagan is white.

Organizers and parents at the event said race was not an issue.

“We didn’t choose the kids, they were chosen by the principals and gym teachers of their respective schools,” said Ratner spokesman Barry Baum. “As for her other remarks, we have no comment other than to say she may want to think a little more carefully before she speaks.”

Among parents who showed up at the gymnasium, most said the activities of the two days rose above the feud. Sarina Dumas, who lives near Shellie Hagan on the border of Bedford-Stuyvesant and Clinton Hill, said the event was for kids, not grownups.

“I understand what they’re saying and I got nothing against it,” said Dumas, whose 12-year-old son Najhmier Lee, took part in the camp. “But I was there for my child. This is for the children. I liked it because, like I say, it kept them off the street.

“Anyway,” she added, “these kids, they aren’t into politics right now. They’re into B-ball.”

Updated 4:00 pm, November 10, 2010
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