It was a slam dunk of a “thank you.”
The Brooklyn Nets showed their gratitude to the unsung heroes of the coronavirus pandemic who not only saved lives but kept the city running as COVID-19 ravaged the Big Apple, by hosting them for the NBA’s opening night Tuesday and dishing out the VIP treatment.
“It’s really nice to be recognized. This is fantastic,” said Louis Toigo, a 17-year veteran of the sanitation department, adding with a smile, “Usually, we are getting yelled at.”
The 43-year-old Midwood resident was one of 62 COVID-weary New Yorkers tapped from across city agencies, hospitals, supermarkets and food banks to watch the Nets take on the Golden State Warriors — a rare treat considering the league has been playing without fans present since it resumed play this summer.
“My family is very jealous of me right now. My daughter was begging me to take her with me,” said Toigo.
The spectators were nominated by their bosses for their hard work and exceptional service during the city’s darkest days.
To ensure everyone’s safety, they were COVID-tested twice and socially distanced in “pods” throughout the arena.
“I feel like a celebrity,” said Fernando Estevez, the manager at Key Food in Park Slope. “I feel so honored that they picked me.”
This matchup was the first NBA game for Damalai Dalgety, 40, a nurse in the cardiac unit at Brooklyn’s Maimonides Medical Center. And the experience brought up the raw emotions of gratitude she felt early in the pandemic when people from the community would bring food and write inspiring messages outside of the hospital.
“This is amazing. As a nurse, we work really hard and give and give, so it’s nice to be taken care of for a night,” said the Bed-Stuy resident, who wore an all-black leather ensemble for the occasion. “It’s the Nets. C’mon, you can’t come dressed in pink.”
The frontline workers were also present to usher in the era of superstar Kevin Durant, who made his debut after sitting out last season with an Achilles tendon injury.
“I don’t need anything else for Christmas,” said paramedic and Nets fan Paul Melville. The father of four from East New York — who has transported more than 300 COVID patients and logged 17- to 20-hour days in the spring — said he was starved for live sports, but seeing his new favorite Net take the floor more than quenched his appetite. “I get to see Kevin Durant play. KD has got it. I am ecstatic.”
Though the arena was relatively empty, it didn’t keep the fans from getting involved in the action.
During the third quarter, the dance cam was dusted off and zoomed in on MTA bus driver Luis Jimenez, 56.
The Morningside Heights resident drives the M11 bus and is also a 16-year member of the New York Liberty’s dance team, the Timeless Torches. As the camera found him, he danced the Dougie, delighting everyone in the building and even inspiring a few of his fellow essential workers to get jiggy with it, in their own pod.
“It feels so great to be back in an arena,” said Jimenez, a 21-year veteran and father of five. “I hear the music, I see the court and I want to start performing. I will be savoring every moment of tonight. I am so humbled I was chosen to be here.”
Before the game, a banner emblazoned with a mask and “NYC Essential Workers 2020” was unveiled. The tribute will hang permanently in the rafters.
There was also a charitable component of the Barclays Essential Together event. The Nets and Barclays, the arena’s naming-rights partner, collectively raised more than $2 million — the amount the team would have made in ticket sales if the game had been sold out — to be donated to various charities in the fight against COVID-19.
John Abbamondi, the CEO of BSE Global, said they wanted to show appreciation for those who put their lives on the line and weren’t just “able to Zoom for work.”
“This is all going to come to an end, and life will get back to some semblance of normalcy,” he said. “We want people 10 years from now — kids who maybe don’t have a memory of this — to understand what happened and what these people did to help our city, and I think this banner will help tell that story.”
The gesture was not lost on Melville.
“To know that banner is going to stay up there, it really just hit me in the heart,” he said.