Rocking Arena will be enough to lure Terps back

Bill Tanton

January 21, 1993|By Bill Tanton

Of course Maryland will be back.

Of course the Terps' basketball team will play again at the Baltimore Arena -- and maybe more often than you think.

You don't walk away from the sort of thing that happened here this week, and I'm not just talking about the fact that Maryland upset Oklahoma, 89-78.

What transpired here Tuesday night was electrifying.

The Terps' first game in Baltimore in five years blossomed into the most rousing indoor event held in our city in years.

I submit it was one of the most exciting ever, and I've been covering games at the Baltimore street barn since it opened 30 years ago as the Civic Center.

This game -- Maryland-Oklahoma -- ranks up there with the classic Bullets-Knicks playoff games played more than 20 years ago in the same building.

Hey, I know the Bullets sell out every game here now. But Bullets crowds tend to sit on their hands, coming to life mainly for a monster jam or a spectacular shot rejection.

I realize our indoor lacrosse team, the Thunder, has had some sellouts. But box lacrosse is Canada's national sport (hockey isn't, believe it or not).

Bloodthirsty Thunder fans like the action. They really turn on when there's a fight or when somebody gets whacked good with a stick. But as far as understanding the sport, they're clueless.

Indoor soccer fans are into the game, but there aren't enough of them to come close to what Maryland-Oklahoma created. The Spirit is averaging 4,300 in attendance.

Ice hockey, in the form of the minor-league Skipjacks, "creeps along in this petty pace from day to day," as Shakespeare put it.

But Maryland basketball, Gary Williams-style, with the Terps embarrassing the nation's No. 12 team?

Sheesh! If you weren't one of the 12,313 at the Arena that night, you missed something.

When you think about it, most Baltimore fans probably have never experienced anything like it. The crowd at the Arena consisted largely of Cole Field House transplants.

Maryland's bright, young football coach, Mark Duffner, was one of the Terps partisans on his feet, clapping and cheering as the team hung onto its lead.

Duffner, who attends most of the home basketball games, showed his approval as Williams out-coached the Sooners' 19-year coach, Billy Tubbs, the so-called master of the run-and-gun. Williams got Tubbs into a half-court game and the Sooners couldn't handle it.

Randy Milligan, of Orioles fame, got into the spirit of the occasion, but the man to his right in the black leather coat -- Harold Reynolds -- was even more involved.

Baltimore people don't know what Division I basketball can be if they've confined themselves to the local colleges.

They can't imagine the frenzy created by the band, the crowd, the cheering. They have no idea of the sheer energy involved. Television, good as it is, can't capture all that.

That's why Maryland has to come back here. This was a shining moment. You don't just do it once, as Williams noted.

"We might have to do this again," he said with a little smile moments after the game ended.

Maryland's astute athletic director, Andy Geiger, is in full accord.

There are those who disagree with Geiger's decision to discontinue playing Terps football games at Memorial Stadium. But basketball is different.

"We should play one basketball game -- or two -- in Baltimore every year," Geiger says. "In basketball, we're talking about one or two games out of 26. Playing here helps the university in a lot of ways.

"But when you spend $20 million improving your football stadium and facilities, as we've done, if you take your best home game and put it somewhere else -- and you only have five or six games at home -- the legislators in Annapolis are going to ask, 'Why did we give them all this money for football?' "

It mattered not to Geiger that there were a few empty seats at the Arena. "It was a virtual sellout," he said.

Everyone realized that with Maryland having come into this game with a four-game losing streak, the turnout in Baltimore was excellent.

Maryland will be back. It has to come back, though, with the right opponent.

This time, Oklahoma was ideal -- high-scoring, nationally ranked and beatable.

When the Terps return, it will be against a non-Atlantic Coast Conference opponent.

And when it happens, the Arena will light up once again with the kind of magic only college basketball is going to produce in a city that has no NBA or NHL team.

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