Sunset Park

The Jets, at Sunset

January 6, 2016 By James H. Burns Special to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle
New York Jets defensive end Muhammad Wilkerson (96) is helped off the field during the second half of an NFL game against the Buffalo Bills on Sunday, Jan. 3, in Orchard Park, N.Y. AP Photo/Bill Wippert
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Not everyone in Sunset Park on Sunday seemed to care about the Jets game.

As I walked along 39th Street and Third Avenue, right under the Gowanus overpass, and then down Fourth Avenue, I kept stepping into restaurants and a couple of bars:

I was anxious to see the last quarter of what I hoped wouldn’t be the Jets’ last effort of the season. (The team had to beat the Buffalo Bills, to make the playoffs.)

All the televisions were turned to a soccer game.

Finally, I found success, at 36th and Fourth, at La Fe Restaurant, just across from the subway stop. The gentlemen at the bar seemed unconcerned by the fact that the TV set above their heads was tuned to New York 1, the news station. I asked the first lovely young lady behind the counter if she would mind putting on the football game, on Channel 2. She smiled, having no idea what I was saying. Another very nice woman, the manager, came over and changed the channel.

I ordered a coffee.

For decades now, of course, Sunset Park has been predominantly a Hispanic and Asian neighborhood. It is certainly possible that within many of the apartments along the way, or inside the small row houses built over one hundred years ago that line some of the side streets, sets were tuned to the NFL. (There are also, with some secrecy, beautiful lofts that have been built in some of the warehouse buildings, home to the upwardly mobile, as the industrial area begins what could become a further gentrification.)

To be sure, one can have a perfectly fulfilling life without any interest in sports. One elderly African-American gentleman, presiding over a weekend sale at the Koch Comics warehouse on 41st Street (a vast emporium of comics, toys, books and records), said that he preferred to have his movies or “Downton Abbey” on the office’s television. One of the book-lovers perusing the aisles was following the Jets game on his smartphone, while the other patrons seemed solely concerned, and happy, with browsing.

But I have yet to see a Jets or Giants cap in the community, or any other football team-wear, on an adult or a child.

If there’s something sad about this scenario of apparent disinterest, it’s only that sports have always presented a way for those new to our shores to share a common experience. 

Over 90 years ago, my uncle Ben Dunau, who would one day argue a case before the Supreme Court and become a law professor, emigrated as a child with his parents from Austria. He had a terrible time his first semester in a Lower East Side Manhattan school, forced to learn English on his own. But just a relatively short while later, in 1934, he was delighted when, along with his cousin Leo London — similarly, a young immigrant — they somehow scored tickets to baseball’s all-star game at the Polo Grounds! 

(Future science and science fiction writer, Isaac Asimov, whose family emigrated from Russia to Brooklyn when he was 3 in the early 1920s, fell in love with baseball when he became fascinated by the sport’s ever-changing, daily statistics.)

My friend Stephanie Daniella, from Germany, came to Connecticut and New York 11 years ago as a professional ballroom dancer and instructor. (Today, she’s a trainer at a fitness and Mixed Martial Arts center, in Southern California). She tried to watch American sports as a way to learn more about our culture, and simply find something new that she might enjoy.

(Daniella was relieved when I told her that there were people who had been watching football their entire lives, who could still be flummoxed by its myriad of rules. Ultimately, she preferred basketball, and for the most intriguing of reasons: She liked being able to see an athlete’s face.)

When New York City, under Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, slashed the budgets for far too many schools’ extracurricular programs, we didn’t just lose a generation of potential musicians and artists and athletes, but kids who could have become fans and supporters of those endeavors.

There are New Yorkers who still don’t know about the vast cutbacks. Some years ago, for example, Michael Kay — one of our brighter sports commentators, the lead announcer for the Yankees and a former journalist for the New York Post — was stunned when I discussed this with him on his afternoon ESPN radio talk show.

This also points to a failure of the National Football League:

With all the millions commissioner Roger Goodell is spending on expanding the league’s brand to Europe and other international markets, should he not be spending a bit more attention to the boroughs and burgs that are in fact, his neighbors?

Certainly, it would behoove the NFL to get a football into the hands of every kid in New York, or at least some football cards or other paraphernalia.

To be sure, there are many recent immigrants to New York who have become major Jets or Giants fans or followers of other football clubs.

The kids across the street from me in my old Long Island neighborhood who came from the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico were thrilled when I gave them a football, and we’d play “catch.”  On the other side of the block were some youngsters from Ecuador. They may have spent a good part of their afternoon practicing soccer, but would also spend time discussing with me whether New York Giant coach Tom Coughlin could have one more championship season. The son of my old mechanic, who was originally from China, was delighted one year when his birthday presents included a New York Jets hat.
The National Football League used to understand that if you get youngsters as fans, they could become “customers” for life. (A kid who first dreams of a sport today, after all, can be a fan forever.)

Sunday afternoon in Brooklyn, the waitresses were surprised at my groan when Ryan Fitzpatrick threw his interception in the Jets game’s final minutes. When he threw one more interception with seconds to go, I sighed, finished my coffee, thanked the staff and walked toward the door.

The other fellas at the bar didn’t have to return to their conversation. 

They had never left.

James H. (Jim) Burns, has written features for such magazines as Gentleman’s Quarterly, Esquire, Heavy Metal and Twilight Zone; and op-eds or essays for Newsday, The Village Voice, The Sporting News and The New York Times. He has become active in radio, and has contributed to Broadway and Off-Broadway productions.


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