You could hear the sound of the summer game last night at the corner of Eden and Chase in East Baltimore, and it wasn't the firm crack of a double to left field or the pop of a fastball hitting a catcher's glove.
It was the squeak of high-tops making sharp cuts, the rhythmic bouncing of a ball off a hardtop, the referee's whistle, the imploring shouts of coaches and players and fans. Basketball. The summer game at the corner of Eden and Chase.
The setting was the blue and red court behind the Madison Square Recreation Center, where they play the Craig Cromwell League, in which you will find just about all of the city's best high school players. Three nights a week. Five games a night. Yes, five.
"And we'll still get out of here on time," said William Wells, the director of the rec center, varsity coach at St. Frances and founder of the league, which began in 1985 but only now is starting to reach a crescendo, with 14 teams and a waiting list.
It is an off-season home for the members of the city's considerable basketball constituency, who may read the headlines to see if the Orioles won, but don't lose any sleep over it. "These," Wells said, "are your serious basketball people."
They gather night after night and week after week to watch the city's best develop their skills in a breezy, open-air pavilion, a concrete roof protecting the court from rain, both ends and one ** side left open. Five rows of concrete bleachers on either side.
"And they'll be filled if there's a good game," Wells said. "We'll have anywhere from 300 to 600 people on any given night. If there's a good game, you'll have trouble finding a seat. We've got Dunbar playing Southern next Friday. Word spreads. It'll draw a big crowd."
The league is named after a Calvert Hall student and basketball player who was murdered in April 1985 coming home from a practice. He had stopped at a friend's house to watch the NCAA championship game, and was walking home when a man he'd never met shot him down.
"Craig played here at my rec center all the time," Wells said, "and he was a real good kid. It was such a terrible thing. I wanted to do something to keep the memory of what happened in people's minds, just maybe to keep it from happening again. And to give the kids a place to go."
There are similar leagues in many cities, but what sets this one apart is the players represent their high schools, not a rec center or neighborhood. The winter's best rivalries get a summer fix. You want Dunbar-Southern? You got it -- in the middle of August.
It isn't quite the same, of course. The coaches don't run their teams, giving way to JV coaches or rec workers. There is less defense and more fast-break fun. The refs call it loose. No one cries if he loses. Everyone just shakes hands and sits down together to watch the next game.
But there is still a sizable collection of no-look passes, dunks and nifty teamwork. People are still buzzing about the all-star game a couple of weeks ago, when the court was littered with college-caliber talent.
"We've got some real nice players in the city right now," Wells said,and, indeed, Dunbar alone has at least three players over whom recruiters will be fighting. "The quality of play here has gone up a lot in the last few years."
The games began last night at 5, with a covering of clouds moving in to cool off the evening after a hot, humid afternoon. Parking spaces on Eden were gone within an hour. One vendor sold sno-cones and pickles. Another sold sodas. A breeze blew steadily. It was a fine place to wile away a few hours.
Fans began to fill the bleachers. Children ran everywhere, even on the court with the score tied in the final seconds, as everyone laughed. Cars stopped along the street, drivers catching a few fast breaks before moving on.
The first game was Edmonson-Carver. A half-dozen city coaches were in the bleachers. Parents. Players from other teams. There were two 20-minute halves, with the clock running until the last few minutes. The game was close and a few fans screamed and Carver varsity coach Durce Jackson sat on the top row of the bleachers watching his players.
"It's just an excellent league," said Jackson, whose team has won the Maryland Scholastic Association B conference two years running. "I can sit here right now and see a kid who was on my JV last year getting better and better."
Muggsy Bogues was in the bleachers the other night. Reggie Lewis has been by. So has Duane Ferrell. "It's people who love basketball," Wells said. "And we've had college scouts here from Southern Cal, Oregon State. Dozens of them from all over."
Loyola and St. Frances followed the Carver-Edmonson game. Southern would play later, and Calvert Hall and Lake Clifton. Dunbar had the night off, which would keep the number of fans down, but not too down. At the corner of Eden and Chase, the sound of the summer game always draws a crowd.