Maybe he had a premonition, or maybe it was just the well-mannered Midwestern kid in him—the one who still calls his elders "sir" and "ma’am." Either way, Caris LeVert answered the strange number that flashed across the screen of his cell.
The Nets rookie, who just turned 22, was making his way to the DUMBO section of Brooklyn, in the middle of a trek around the borough he never expected to call home, when his phone rang. It was a real estate agent, calling to let him know his application at a downtown building had been accepted. The apartment—one of eight he had looked at—was his for the taking. When could he sign and return the lease?
“I was trying to get out of the hotel for a couple of weeks,” LeVert says, mustering a sly smile. “Hotel life wasn’t bad, but I wanted to get my own spot. I can’t wait to get in there and get my own furniture.”
Since June 24, the day after the Nets acquired his rights on draft night via a trade with the Pacers, LeVert has been holed up in the Dazzler Hotel, located near the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge. Questions about his surgically repaired foot dogged him during the draft process, and of all the teams that were in position to select LeVert, he estimates he talked to the Nets the least. “I didn’t know how interested they were until they picked me,” he tells Complex.
But here he is; the quiet and reserved kid from Pickerington, Ohio (pop. 19,000) who worked himself from a lightly recruited high schooler to a three-year starter at Michigan to a first round selection. He never thought he’d be a member of the new-look Nets and a resident of Brooklyn (pop. 2.5 million), a place he’s barely had a chance to explore. So Complex took him on a tour of his new stomping grounds, rolling to many of its famous neighborhoods and landmarks to give LeVert an introductory taste—literally and figuratively—of Brooklyn. And while he now knows more about his new home than it knows about him, he also knows his days of roaming around its streets anonymously could soon come to an end.
4:55 p.m., Brooklyn Museum, Prospect Heights
Dressed in a white Polo tee, ripped jean shorts, Jordans, and a dad hat, LeVert strolls through an empty Brooklyn Museum. The renowned institution hosted the popular “Rise of Sneaker Culture” exhibit last year, and only a few days ago held an album release event for PartyNextDoor. It recently opened an exhibit on sports photography called “Who Shot Sports,” featuring hundreds of photos that date back to 1843, and that's what caught LeVert's eye. “As an athlete, you dream of being captured in time like that,” he says.
A few notable images grab LeVert's attention, including Neil Leifer’s famous picture of Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston. LeVert’s late father, Darryl, who passed away when he was 15, was a huge Ali fan, and would regale the player and his little brother with stories about the boxing legend.
In a different section, LeVert stops in front of an old photo of LeBron James, clad in white and sporting his once signature headband, bracing for a foul against a Celtics player. Growing up in Ohio, LeVert rooted for players like Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade. Surprisingly, he wasn’t much of a Cavs fan. Has he ever played against James?
“Not yet,” he says.
But you’ve thought about it?
“Yeah. I just know we play him December 23, because when the schedule came out my phone was blowing up,” he says. “Everyone was hitting me up for tickets!”
5:52 p.m., Kith Brooklyn, Prospect Heights
We pull up to the streetwear and sneaker Mecca Kith and in LeVert goes. He hasn’t been here yet, even though it’s only a few blocks from Barclays Center. One of the biggest adjustments to city life has been getting around, learning how to navigate New York’s congested streets and complicated public transportation system. LeVert’s only been on the subway “once or twice” with someone who knew where they were going. Mostly, he’s been riding around in Ubers. In college, life was a lot easier.
“Being in Ann Arbor, if I wanted to go from my apartment to the gym, I could get on the bus and it would be a two-minute ride, or a 20-minute walk,” he says. “But here you’ve got to take an Uber; you never know about traffic. I’ll go one day to the practice facility and it’ll take 10 minutes. I go the exact same way the next day and it’ll take 30 minutes!”
Inside, LeVert’s mesmerized by the displays of fresh kicks. There are only a few people in the store and nobody says a word to him, except the sales associates who checks if they have a pair of Jordans in his size. His favorite Jordans are the 12s and he’s in the market for a new pair of the 72-10s after he somehow lost one of the sneakers. He’s also intrigued by the rack of Off-White’s A/W 2016 offerings. He likes a T-shirt and a hoodie, but only cops the former. The $555 hoodie, he says later, was “too expensive.”
LeVert’s fiscally responsible for a kid set to earn approximately $1.3 million next season. He says he briefly talked to Isaiah Whitehead, the Nets second-round draft pick and Brooklyn native, about the possibility of getting a place together — because “New York rent will make you want to do that.” Ultimately, LeVert decided to opt for his own place. “In high school, you’re living at home. In college, you live in dorms and apartments with teammates. But this apartment feels like a perfect fit for starting this new chapter of my life.”
LeVert’s leaned heavily on Whitehead; the two have become fast friends. As a born and bred New Yorker, Whitehead has imparted some wisdom on the transplant. The most important lesson so far? “Always stay conscious of your surroundings, because Brooklyn is getting a lot better than what is was but some parts are still rough,” LeVert says. “People will track what you’re doing, so you have to make sure you switch it up.”
8:06 p.m., L&B Spumoni Gardens, Gravesend
Brooklyn’s known for a lot of things: hipsters, brownstones, Prospect Park, and pizza. It’s time LeVert samples arguably the borough’s crown jewel.
The city’s best pizza belongs to the County of Kings, and while you can get a Neapolitan pie just about anywhere these days, indulging in one of the most legendary square Sicilian slices requires trekking to Gravesend. It’s miles in distance and light years aesthetically, culturally, and demographically from downtown Brooklyn, which LeVert is most familiar with. O.G. pizza spot L&B Spumoni Gardens has been in business since 1939 and is famous for putting the sauce on top of the cheese on its Sicilian slices. Driving through Kensington, Midwood, Mapleton—neighborhoods that look nothing like each other—on his way to L&B has LeVert believing he’s in an entirely different state. He passes tall apartment buildings that morph into huge houses that look like they belong in the country. LeVert actually played at least one game Barclays Center each year at Michigan, but he never knew how deep and diverse Brooklyn was.
“Usually I get a feel for cities real quick, but Brooklyn is different,” he says. “It’s something new every day. But that’s what makes it so special, that’s why there’s no place like it.”
Twenty minutes later, he rolls up to a place that feels like it hasn’t changed in 60 years. L&B is relatively busy for a Tuesday night, but it's not overwhelming. LeVert takes a seat in the outside patio near the restaurant's entrance, and waits to dive into one of the slices. A tall, young black kid in Brooklyn isn’t abnormal, but let’s just say, at 6’6” LeVert stands out here. Except nobody comes up to him, points or tries to get off a stealth Snap—even after our photographer has him pose for a few portraits. LeVert’s asked how often he’s recognized in Brooklyn.
“Never,” he says.
And what about in Manhattan?
“I get recognized more in Manhattan,” he says. “Maybe they’re Michigan fans? I don’t know.”
After a few bites, he nods his head in approval: The pizza’s great. But he’s got a visitor at the table — he wants to know why there’s a guy with a camera snapping his pic.
It’s L&B chef and owner Lenny Kern, and once he’s told he’s got one of the new Nets players at his establishment, he makes sure LeVert gets an opportunity to sample just about everything on the menu. One shrimp cocktail wasn’t enough. How about three? Here are some rice balls. You'll love the artichoke appetizer. What about a little antipasto? Dive into the spaghetti Bolognese, served in the biggest bowl you can imagine. Before you know it, LeVert is ready to tap out. He’s only 185 pounds and can definitely put on more weight, but he’s out of room. Plus, he’s in the middle of training. He's supposed to be watching what he eats.
The gregarious Kern, who sports a potbelly as proof that he knows his food, doesn’t take no for an answer. The plates keep coming out. He tries to coax LeVert inside to a more comfortable table, out of the humidity, but the player's too reserved to make a fuss or bother Kern. And then, when LeVert finally concedes and gets up from the table, it happens—a family asks to take a picture with him. Mom snaps her son standing with LeVert’s arm wrapped around him. Finally LeVert's recognized in Brooklyn, and finally Kern convinces LeVert to take him up on his offer for dessert.
Out comes the largest plate of ice cream and Spumoni you’ve ever seen. Layers upon layers of ice cream, stacked a foot high. Four cones supporting the corners, at least two pieces of cheesecake for the base, and who knows what else is in the middle, sitting on a bed of sprinkles and strawberry sauce. All LeVert can do is stare and grin. He reluctantly has a few scoops of ice cream. Kern starts busting his balls.
“Too many carbs!” LeVert says.
“Please, you’ll burn them off by the time you walk out the door,” Kern retorts.
What was supposed to be a quick stop for a couple of slices turned into an epic two-hour dinner. Old Brooklyn took care of New Brooklyn, as Kern sticks around for the duration of dessert to drop a little wisdom on the kid, a successful businessman who doesn’t have a cell phone to a wide-eyed rookie. LeVert is all ears. Kern has some stock advice, offers up watch recommendations, and asks him if he wants to know a thing or two about women. Grinning, LeVert says of course.
“There’s an old Sicilian saying. There are three women who will mourn you: your mother, your grandmother, and your sister,” Kern says. “Your wife, she’s not going to mourn you. She’s moving on.”
LeVert laughs and shakes his head. "I'm going to remember that one," he says.
Kern doesn’t let his special guest leave empty handed—there are leftovers, T-shirts, hats, and a special pot-holder he says he invented. He walks LeVert to his waiting Uber and says goodnight.
In the car, with “Panda” thumping, LeVert says he thought he was coming for a slice. Instead he left with a story.
“That just speaks to the people of Brooklyn,” LeVert says. “I have to come back.”
10:20 p.m., Luna Park, Coney Island
The last stop of the tour. There’s no line for the famous Cyclone rollercoaster, but LeVert’s not going on it anyway. He’s here for the Pop-A-Shot, but can’t get the game to start. The employees roll their eyes when they’re asked to help, oblivious that they’re assisting a NBA player. (When it finally starts working, he easily beats his agent, Joe Branch.)
How much longer LeVert can enjoy his anonymity will largely be up to him, but he’s barely given it any thought. He’s more concerned with making a memorable first impression when he finally steps on the court this season at the end of October.
“Brooklyn already feels like home,” he says. “It's been the setting of every meaningful moment in my professional career so far. I was drafted in the same building I’m going to be playing in. Brooklyn just feels like a natural fit. It means a lot to be able to get past the surface of the borough and really explore the heart of it.”
But it’s been a long day. LeVert has a doctor’s appointment the next morning, followed by a training session, and then he has to start getting his gear together for his move. But before LeVert hops into the final Uber of the evening, a guy pushing a stroller, family in tow, interrupts his conversation. Of all the people standing outside of Luna Park, he picks LeVert, the the new kid in town, for directions. He has absolutely no idea who he is. For now.