Albert King, on the other hand, was a lean 6'6" phenom not yet in high school who was cautious, thoughtful, polite, studious and worried about his future. He was so talented that he brought out the worst in his peers and the older adults who hung around the game—the former idolizing him or sniping behind his back, the latter trying to guide him to places he didn't want to go and profit for themselves whether financially or emotionally. Albert saw Fly on the verge of detonating, watched him from the sidelines, from benches and the hoods of parked cars, saw in the older athlete the majestic tragedy that could only come from being a demigod perched on the edge of the cliff.
Albert—whose older brother, Bernard, would become an NBA superstar—paid attention to everything. He went on to become the most celebrated high school player in the nation, an All-America at Maryland and the 1981 first-round draft pick of the New Jersey Nets. He played nine seasons in the NBA, saved his money and now runs four Wendy's restaurants in New Jersey. In a way his tale is the polar opposite of Fly Williams's. Yet the two are bonded by their similarities more than their differences. Each came from extreme poverty, each played the game at a fever pitch, each had unearthly talent, and each came from Brooklyn—the cradle of the city game.
I remember one July day nearly four decades ago, walking down a Flatbush sidewalk with Albert and Winston—the 23-year-old immigrant from Trinidad who was letting me sleep on his apartment floor for free for five months—and saying to Albert, "I bet you can't touch that limb."
The kid jumped and easily tapped the tree branch. We did this on and on with different targets until eventually he touched a market sign that was so high that all I could do was burst into laughter.
Flash forward all these years, and Albert and I are standing on a Brooklyn sidewalk in late August, across from the still-not-quite-completed Barclays Center, the arena in downtown Brooklyn that has taken developer Bruce Ratner and his unlikely co-owners, Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov and Brooklyn-bred rapper Jay-Z, nearly a decade to bring to fruition. Albert is wearing a business suit, a white shirt and a light blue tie. How different from the tattered RIVERSIDE CHURCH T-shirt he used to wear, the bell-bottom jeans, the nearly demolished, salt-crusted Cons.
He is giddy with Brooklyn love, having just driven in from his home in New Jersey. We have walked through his former ghetto housing project in Fort Greene, where he lived with his family in a 12th-floor apartment in a building whose elevator often didn't work. Now real estate in Fort Greene, as in most of Brooklyn, is skyrocketing, though the old red-brick projects aren't going to become million-dollar suites anytime soon.
"When I drive across the bridge, I get excited," says Albert. "The hotels, the restaurants, the condominiums. A lot of people are thinking of Welcome Back, Kotter, that Brooklyn. But, man, this could be SoHo. When teams come in here, they're gonna be shocked."
All around there is still noise, confusion, litter and people who don't look close to middle class. But the rusted-steel and silver-mirrored Barclays Center—apparently très trendy although, to this observer, resembling a salt-weathered tugboat grounded en route to that redeveloped Brooklyn waterfront enclave called DUMBO (Down Under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass)—has changed all.
This used to be an ugly area. Some people called it their neighborhood. But when I would travel the city with my Subway Stars basketball team, a ragtag group of outcast teens from Foster Park who asked me to be their coach, we made it a practice never to come aboveground here at the Atlantic Avenue Station, a cavernous beehive of subway linkups. "I got robbed right there at Atlantic and Flatbush when I was 13," recalls Sidney Green, 51, a former Brooklyn basketball star who was a first-round draft pick of the Bulls in 1983 and now works for them. "I went downtown to buy some jeans, and thugs put me up against the wall and stole my 12 dollars." That would have been right about the time I was in town.
Now the area has been rebuilt and cleaned up. There are new stores all about. Sparks fly as workers put the finishing touches on Barclays Center, the rusted bucket that is, yes indeed, supposed to look this way, with a curved "weathered steel" exterior that makes one wonder when the Rust-Oleum painters are coming. As the Center's and Nets CEO Brett Yormark would explain, the building harks back to the brownstones that give Brooklyn part of its special texture.