Brooklyn Nets head coach Kenny Atkinson gives Christmas presents to local youth of the Boys & Girls Club before a game at the Barclays Center (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

On a Saturday night at the Barclays Center in January, a young boy sits courtside to see his favorite player in action. He holds a sign high up above his head reading “all the way from Melbourne, Australia to see Kyrie.” The Brooklyn Nets point guard notices, and in an act of kindness, he walks over to give the boy a hug and hands him a pair of his game-worn Kyrie 6s. With a smile from cheek to cheek, the boy holds up the shoes and his sign for a photo op to document a moment he will surely never forget.

Inside the minds of young people around the world, NBA players like Irving are thought of as superheroes. They are idolized, studied, and looked up to as larger-than-life figures who kids aspire to be like when they grow up. It’s every youth basketball player’s dream to meet an NBA player, and it’s the Nets’ mission to make dreams come true for youth in its home borough of Brooklyn.

“Community is so important to who we are,” says Mandy Gutmann, senior VP of communications for BSE Global, the team’s parent company. “We like to think of ourselves as more than just a basketball team.”

Professional sports teams across the globe give athletes and team employees the rare opportunity to have a platform for philanthropy, charity, and social change. Since the relocation of the Nets from New Jersey to Brooklyn in 2012, BSE Global has strived to create bonds of connection with its new home town by reaching out in multiple ways. Call it a playbook for social impact. Many of the programs stem from Brooklyn Nets Assist, an initiative for giving back to surrounding communities in three distinct areas: education, basketball training, and community investment.  

Teachers of the Game

What professional basketball players know best is, well, how to play basketball. And what other way for youth hoopsters to learn than from the best of the best? The Brooklyn Nets Assist program hosts numerous basketball camps and clinics hosted by coaches and players. This year, the team is on track to  host 100 of them by the end of the season. So far, about 6,400 young people have participated in a Nets camp. While kids may simply think they are there to hone their skills on the court, the Nets hope to teach other lessons through their demonstrations.

“It’s beyond teaching the game of basketball,” says Gutmann. “It’s about teaching life skills like how to communicate and how to handle defeat.”

While many of the camps are geared towards children, adults are also there to learn new techniques. In early January, the Nets hosted a clinic for coaches, where more than 100 coaches from around the borough received training and tips directly from members of the Nets coaching staff. 

Nets players are using their own on-court skills to give back to those in need as well. Teaming up with the New York City-based supermarket chain Key Food, the Charity Stripe initiative pledges the Nets to make a donation to a local non-profit based on the number of free throws the team makes at the Barclays Center this season. (As of Jan. 31, the Nets had made 420 shots from the line at home.) A similar challenge is the Threes for Trees program, in which a tree is planted for every three-pointer made at home during the regular season. 

An Assist for Education

In a borough of 2.6 million people with many inequalities in its school system, the Nets have aim to make a difference in youth education. One player who’s renowned for his work is Nets center Jarrett Allen, who has a contagious passion for the subjects known collectively as STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). Allen has emphasized the importance of STEM education through events that combine concepts with real-life experiences. At his third annual Meals + Math Thanksgiving event in November, he provided groceries to 25 local children and their families while simultaneously teaching them about math and budgeting. For his efforts, Allen was honored with the NBA Cares Community Assist Award for the month of March during the 2018-19 season. 

“I’ve always been into STEM since I was younger,” Allen said in an interview with CloseUp360. “I was into technology and math. Giving back was always a part of my childhood, and now that I have a platform to do it, I might as well.”

As in Allen’s case, players have the opportunity to suggest their own ideas for how to give back to the Brooklyn community. Earlier this month, Nets guard Garrett Temple hosted a screening of Just Mercy for kids at a theater in the Cobble Hill neighborhood. The movie, based on the true story of the wrongful murder conviction of Walter McMillian in 1988 in Alabama, resonated with Temple due to his family history in the civil rights movement. Temple’s father, Collis Temple Jr., became the first African-American player on the Louisiana State University (LSU) basketball team. To this day, his son remains eager to teach children about the history of the civil-rights movement and its impact on the U.S. 

Gutmann says whenever players like Allen or Temple come to the front office with ideas, team executives will aim to make them happen. “We try to create events for players around issues that are most important to them,” she said.

The Nets also focus on raising awareness about social issues in the community. After an increase in anti-Semitic crime in Brooklyn neighborhoods in 2019, the team collaborated with the Anti-Defamation League to design a team warm-up shirt that displayed the message “No Place For Hate.” 

Nets center Jarrett Allen meets a young fan at his Meals + Math Thanksgiving event (Photo by Katherine Tyler)

The team has expanded on the effort by organizing an education program for K-12 students about how to prevent and combat hate crimes. “We stay focused on the needs in the borough and ask ‘What is happening?’” says Gutmann. “How can we use our voice to amplify that need?”

Investing in the Community

“Social responsibility and community investment is important across the NBA,” says Gutmann. “We have the ability to really touch special young people and have an incredible pipeline to give them life lessons.”

Part of community involvement is aligning with cultural heritage, including the embrace of local icons.   For the last two seasons, the Nets have produced special-edition jerseys paying homage to rap legend and Brooklyn native the Notorious B.I.G., trimmed with a Coogi-style color scheme that was infamous in his wardrobe. On many breaks in play on game night at Barclays Center, you can hear a Biggie song playing on the PA. “We weren’t just launching another jersey, we were celebrating the life of Christopher Wallace,” said Gutmann.

Getting close to the people is another goal of the Nets. Every year near the beginning of the season, the teams hosts a Practice in the Park on a pier on the Brooklyn waterfront, where fans can come and see the players do a light workout. This year’s event had extra buzz because of the Nets acquisition of All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Kevin Durant, both of whom showed up for a close encounter with their new fans.

“Both players have incredible community activism and the impact they are capable of making,” says Gutmann.

During the holiday season, Durant visited the Coalition for the Homeless in Manhattan to provide gifts for 40 children enduring homelessness in the city, where the problem has reached levels not seen since the Great Depression. Kids were greeted with big red bags full of toys, which Durant snapped photos and chatted with them

Irving hosted his annual “Kyrie Invitational” high-school basketball tournament in December, where some of the best young players from around the borough showcased their skills in front of one of the NBA’s best.

All-Star Center DeAndre Jordan, also new to the Nets this season, won the most recent NBA Cares Community Assist Award in December for his efforts to brighten the holiday season for kids through his “6 Days of Giving” initiative. Jordan invited 30 children from the BKLYN Combine on a shopping trip with him and treated 60 students from a local school to the new Nickelodeon Universe Theme Park in New Jersey.

“We’re all getting involved in the community and people can see the effects of what we’re doing,” said Nets head coach and Long Island native Kenny Atkinson in an interview with NetsDaily. “I think people are taking note of the things we do and how in tune with Brooklyn we actually are.”

Rising stars in the Nets organization are beginning to make a name for themselves in the community as well. Rookie forward Nicolas Claxton and Nets representatives teamed up with the New York Knicks to host a holiday party for the local Boys & Girls Club in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. “Some boys met a player not much older than them and asked him questions about life and had meaningful conversations,” Gutmann said about their interaction with Claxton. “When Nic walked away, he was so touched by it.”

Brooklyn Nets point guard Kyrie Irving shoots a three as fans look on during the third annual Practice in the Park at Brooklyn Bridge Park (Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images)

While individual teams like the Nets tailor their programs to the contours of their communities, they have a mandate from the NBA to do so. Organized under the umbrella of NBA Cares, the league’s has a commitment to demonstrating social responsibility in the U.S. and around the world. According to its website, NBA Cares programs have provided more than 5 million hours of hands-on service.

As a multibillion-dollar business, the NBA sees its role as bigger than just entertainment. Caring about the fans and community members beyond the dollars they spend on tickets and gear brings a return than can’t be measured according to the usual business metrics. “Words don’t even cover the amount of tremendous feedback we have gotten,” says Gutmann. “The smile that you see on someone’s face when they get to experience something they haven’t before says it all.”

Evan Hong, a reporting intern at From Day One, is a journalism student at the University of Wisconsin- Eau Claire. He works as the sports director at TV10, the university’s campus TV station