Brooklyn Nets players D’Angelo Russell, DeMarre Carroll, Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen, along with head coach Kenny Atkinson and general manager Sean Marks, last Friday joined the Parks Department, elected officials and community members for the ribbon-cutting ceremony at Nicholas Naquan Heyward, Jr. Park.
Barclays Center Care and the Brooklyn Nets Foundation funded the $324,000 facelift.
The basketball courts, completely repaved, repainted and color sealed, have new fencing, benches, nets, hoops and backboards. The park also added drinking fountains with bottle-fillers, and the court is now ADA accessible.
The makeover represents the first major renovation of the courts in 25 years.
“It has always been a priority of ours to positively impact our surrounding community,” said Brett Yormark, CEO of Brooklyn Sports & Entertainment, who noted the park is just one mile from the Barclays Center. “It’s fitting that we can do so today by finding common ground with basketball, a sport that has always been an important part of the fabric of this great borough.
“We hope these courts will empower and motivate local youth to stay active,” he added, “and provide a safe and positive place for them, now and into the future.”
The Nets players later joined local students in practice drills and workout routines and posed for photos.
Nets guard LeVert said growing up as a kid, everybody wanted to play on a nice court like the one at the park.
“I remember when I was that young, I didn’t know any NBA players,” he said, “so I always said if I made it, I would definitely be one to give back to kids.”
Carroll called renovating the courts “a great cause with a lot of meaning behind it.” He said he hopes it will allow more kids to practice, get better and perhaps make it to the NBA one day.
“We just try to come out here and be role models,” Carroll said. “Let these kids know we are human just like they are. They can make it and achieve if they keep working and stay in school and put in the work.”
Russell noted how cold that Friday afternoon was, and said it took dedication for the kids to be there. He said it reminded him of when he used to look up to NBA players as a youth.
“I remember being in those shoes not too long ago,” he said. “Just to be out here as a professional basketball player, making these kids smile, means a lot.”
The park is named after Nicholas Naquan Heyward, Jr., a 13-year-old who, in 1994, was shot by housing Officer Brian George. According to his father, the teen was playing a game of cops and robbers in the stairwell of the Gowanus Houses using plastic toy guns when he was shot in the stomach.
Heyward died later that day, and the case was never brought before a grand jury.
In 2001, the Gowanus Houses Playground was renamed in honor of Heyward. According to Brooklyn Parks Commissioner Martin Maher, who asked the audience to observe a moment of silence at the ceremony, the late teen played at the basketball courts regularly.
Though the park was named after Heyward, Maher said the playground “wasn’t quite worthy of the name.” The mayor and borough president allocated funds to renovate the playground. It wasn’t until this year, when the Brooklyn Nets organization was involved, that the basketball courts were redone.
“They said we need to complete the picture here,” Maher said. “We need to make this worthy of the name Nicholas Naquan Heyward, Jr.”
Maher also applauded Heyward, Sr., who has raised awareness about his son’s life and death. He has also run a basketball tournament at the park for the last two decades to bring local youth together.
“What the family and Mr. Heyward did is they turned tragedy into an amazing positive thing for this neighborhood,” Maher said. “ The tournament is here to encourage young people to engage in sports and to be fit and have programs in the park.”
Heyward remembered his son as an “amazing child” who had lots of aspirations. He strived to be a basketball player, practicing his skills on the courts. He also wanted to be a gynecologist, and loved doing research.
“Nicholas was so inspired to achieve things in life,” he said. “It was sad that it was cut short by a tragic incident. It was a very, very painful moment for me. It has been a very painful 23 years.”
After the ceremony, Maher pulled the Heyward family aside and unveiled a plaque inside the park honoring the younger Heyward. It details his tragic killing at the hands of a housing officer. Upon reading the description, his father began crying and embraced Maher in an emotional moment.
“To lose him at that age, and at that particular time, it was so hard to get past that,” Heyward said.
But since losing his son, Heyward has channeled his energy into improving the lives of local youth. In addition to the basketball tournaments, Heyward also hosts an annual Day of Remembrance to honor his late son.
He has also been advocating for the opening of a community center where children can partake in activities in addition to the park, which he considers “a safe haven” for youth.
“The youth are our future, so it’s important that we work with these children so they can achieve the things they want in life,” Heyward said. “We must work tirelessly for them.”