By Kelly Whiteside, USA TODAY
March 21, 2011
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NEWARK — Newark Mayor Cory Booker has been in the spotlight for much of his life. Projections about his political future go far beyond City Hall.
Governor? Future president?
“Ruler of the world!” he says, laughing at the stratospheric expectations.
He’s a FOO (Friend of Oprah and Obama). He’s a Rhodes scholar, a former Stanford football player, a “national champion” in basketball (more on that later) and a member of USA TODAY’s All-USA high school football team in 1986. (“Definitely the pinnacle,” Booker jokes.)
In other words, Booker’s got game.
When college basketball and all of its madness comes to Newark on Friday, the moment will be about more than just Ohio State vs. Kentucky and North Carolina vs. Marquette. And certainly more than just Booker. Long a symbol of urban decay, Newark is about to take its star turn, a spotlight unimaginable as recently as five years ago.
“For us, it’s about finding more platforms to tell our truth, and this obviously is a sturdy, tall platform that a lot of people are going to see,” says Booker, 41. “We’re going to take full advantage to show people what we are as a city. My team over the last five years has tried to attack the negative, because we have such a great story to tell.”
Since the 1967 race riots, New Jersey’s largest city has been known mostly for its crime and poverty. Violent crime fell dramatically in 2008 and ’09. But since February of last year, crimes ranging from auto theft to murder have risen 16%, according to Newark Police Department statistics. The area around 18,500-seat Prudential Arena, home to the Devils, Nets and Seton Hall basketball, is remarkably safe, says Booker, who adds there have been no major crimes since the arena opened in 2007.
Still, stereotypes persist. Asked the perception others have of his hometown, Morehead State’s Kenneth Faried says, “That people are rude and disrespectful and they have no manners. That people from Newark steal from you blindly and pickpocket you. And we have gangbangers and thugs and drug dealers everywhere. And you don’t want to be caught in the subway late at night.”
Faried says that, when he first came to Morehead, teammates made assumptions based on his long dreadlocks and on Newark’s reputation: “They thought, ‘Hey, he must be a thug.’ But they see I’m very respectful and nice and polite.”
Faried, whose family still lives in Newark, has not met Booker but says, “I think he’s doing a great job there. … Newark has changed a lot. We have an arena there now, a huge one. … It seems like people are coming around. We have the light rail there. It just seems like more of an I-would-live-here type of place.”
After last week’s upset of Louisville, Morehead State was knocked off by Richmond, so Faried will watch the rest of the tournament from afar. Booker will be front and center, bursting with Newark pride, bragging about the city’s restaurants, arts center, museums and manufacturing.
“Did you know the second-biggest cowboy-hat manufacturer is based in Newark? And so is Manischewitz, matzo and really good wine,” Booker says. Newark is also known as “Brick City” for reasons unrelated to basketball.
As for more Newark trivia: “Did you know I am the only sitting mayor who started for a national championship basketball team?” Booker says.
Wait for it …
“Well, it’s not this nation. I played for Oxford and we beat Cambridge in the British national championship, so it’s very appropriate that I am here, as a national championship victor, talking about the tournament.” Booker breaks out in a long, loud laugh.
He is equally self-deprecating about his Stanford football career. He says those years, 1987-90, are called “The Cory Curse,” because the Cardinal went to a bowl the year before he came and the year after he left. In between, 16-26-2.
However, there’s always the memory of Oct. 6, 1990, when Stanford, then 1-3, played at top-ranked Notre Dame. With Stanford trailing in the final minutes, Booker, a tight end, caught a 25-yard pass over the middle. Notre Dame All-America cornerback Todd Lyght fell for the only move Booker owns. “I throw my butt left, and I run right because I can’t go left. I had a clear path … I was closing in on the end zone … ”
Only to be tackled out of bounds. Still, Booker’s catch set up Tommy Vardell’s game-winning score for a 36-31 upset.
The next big event in Newark is the Peace Education Summit with the Dalai Lama, who is about the only one who hasn’t asked Booker for hoops tickets. “But he challenged me to a one-on-one,” he jokes. Apparently, His Holiness has game, too. “I think he levitates to the basket,” Booker adds.
Booker’s vision for Newark is as wide as his imagination. “Sixty years ago, Newark was on the front page of Harper’s magazine as the most livable city in America,” he says. “It was considered an American gem. I see that pendulum swinging back.” He envisions a city of innovation, a city of ideas, a city with a higher quality of life.
First, though, there’s basketball.