It’s the hottest day of the year in Brooklyn. The breeze drifts in and out at an alarmingly slow pace, making Coney Island feel like one big sauna. The humidity adds a layer of stickiness. Feels like walking through one spiderweb after another. Neptune Avenue is damn near empty. People are staying inside to avoid getting sunburnt. In the distance, the heat rises off the ground. Mermaid Ave isn’t much better, except for 27th street, where there’s a basketball court. Despite the temperatue, 27th and Mermaid is packed with people.
They’re all here to support one of their proudest sons, Isaiah Whitehead. The youngin’ has gathered the entire neighborhood for a cookout. It’s an afternoon full of basketball, free food and a bouncy house. The people at the court love IW so much, they risk 98-degree weather to come say what’s up. It’s one more chance for Isaiah to show how much love he has for CI, his family and his friends, before he suits up for the Nets.
Whitehead grew up playing ball at this court. He showed up whether there was sweltering heat, pouring rain or blistering cold. It’s the place where his incredible toughness was earned and the place where, after draining half-court shots on kids, he would run up to tell his mother, a clear sign of just how much the game meant to him.
Whitehead’s like a bunch of other kids in Coney Island and New York City, as well. Basketball runs deep in their blood, passed down through generations. The game offers an escape from every day life, a chance to be someone completely different, a spot to show other people that through hard work and determination, you can be something bigger.
On the hottest day of the year, Isaiah Whitehead is all smiles. He quickly walks around the basketball court and surrounding park, giving attention to everyone that’s there to see him. He daps up little kids, poses for pictures with babies, hugs women and listens to all the advice the old heads give him. He makes sure Ohio-native and newly drafted Net Caris LeVert is taken care of and having fun. He handles it all with ease, completely comfortable playing host to the entire neighborhood. He’s at the court. He’s in his element.
Whitehead’s part of a long line of Coney Island-bred guards from Lincoln High School to make a name for themselves. For years, the Rail Splitters have played with ferocious passion, trying to take people’s hearts. There have been some big names to pass through those halls.
Isaiah respects “the great” Stephon Marbury, remembers Sebastian Telfair and is friends with Lance Stephenson. He knows the history of everyone else that didn’t make it. In New York, basketball is sacred and those who are nice enough understand just how much they mean to the city.
“Growing up out here, those guys really told me, ‘Hey, pressure’s gonna come,’” Whitehead says about the Rail Splitters that came before him. “It’s really just about doing what you do and believing in yourself. Lance really instilled that in me. He helped me out a lot.”
But Born Ready isn’t the one who inspired Whitehead to fall in love with the game. That was Jermaine Brown, the first man to believe in IW.
“It was probably about sixth grade,” Whitehead says. “Maine, you see his name on all the jerseys, see his name on my shirt.” The 42nd pick of the 2016 Draft points to his right bicep, where his shirt says “RIPMAINE.”
“He really instilled in my mind that this basketball thing could change my life,” Whitehead says.
So now, after Brown tragically passed in 2014 at only 33 because of a brain aneurysm, Whitehead honors his coach in everything he does, right down to this cookout for Coney Island.
On the hottest day of the year, Isaiah Whitehead’s values are as clear as the blue sky above him. He’s all about loyalty. He keeps his loved ones close and remains kind to those he doesn’t know as well. He listens and entertains. And when he does talk about the next level, even for just a second, it’s not hard to see he grew up on the blacktop.
“[We’re] very, very fierce competitors,” he says. “We hate to lose. We always wanna shine, we always wanna get the highlight play. It’s the kind of basketball you wanna watch. I know fundamental basketball is great, but there’s nothing like somebody falling on the floor from a crossover.” He smiles from ear to ear. “That just explains New York City basketball.”
The lessons that he learned from the asphalt have followed him from Lincoln to Seton Hall and soon, to the Barclays Center. The incoming rookie averaged 9 points, 3 rebounds and 3 assists at the Las Vegas Summer League and says the Nets’ coaching staff expects a high level of commitment and energy from the 21-year-old.
“They just said whenever I’m in the game, play hard,” Whitehead says. “Play hard defensively. They said when you’re out there, take advantage. By the end of your minutes, if you’re dead tired, you did your job. That’s basically what I’m gonna do when I get an advantage. Defend aggressively, make the right plays on offense.”
Before then, though, Whitehead has to show love to the folks that came out on the hottest day of the year. There’s a middle school game to kick the day off. The future of Lincoln was on full display. Then there’s a high school game where Isaiah Washington finger-rolls the crowd into a frenzy. The game has to be stopped multiple times to clear the court after highlight plays.
The love for basketball runs deep around here. An entire day of watching some of the best New York has to offer brings everyone together. There’s trash talking, laughing, dunking. After a layup from Isaiah Washington, the standing room only crowd seems to forget that it’s the hottest day of the year in Brooklyn.
Read more at http://www.slamonline.com/nba/isaiah-whitehead-homegrown/#JXROhsuTOYxqQ5uL.99