Melvin Bilal received an unusual call on his car phone this week while driving to work.
"It was an alumnus of Coppin State, and he wanted to buy 50 tickets to the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament," said Bilal, chairman for the four-day men's and women's championships. The tournament begins at Morgan State tomorrow before moving to the Baltimore Arena for Sunday's finals.
It will be the first time in 20 years that Baltimore will be host to the MEAC tournament, which has been held primarily in Greensboro, N.C., and Norfolk, Va., over the past two decades. Interest by area basketball fans has grown considerably recently, as Coppin rolled to its second straight unbeaten conference season.
Five of the conference's nine members are located in the Northeast -- Coppin, Morgan, Howard, Maryland Eastern Shore and Delaware State. These colleges have been campaigning to bring the tournament to Baltimore. This year, they obtained strong support from Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, who formed a committee last May to spearhead the drive.
"Originally, we were bidding to host the tourney in 1995," said Bilal, president of Security America Services. "But when we learned from [MEAC commissioner] Ken Free in December that the tourney lease with the Scope in Norfolk had not been renewed, we said, 'Let's go for it this year.'
"It's been a real struggle because of our late start, especially in getting corporate support," Bilal said. "Most of the corporations had already committed their advertising budgets for this year. It should be a lot easier for us the next few years now that we have the conference's support to hold it here."
Led by former Dunbar High and Maryland coach Bob Wade, Schmoke's committee has been playing a hurry-up brand of salesmanship in pushing tickets.
"It looks good as far as selling out [5,600-seat] Morgan for the first three nights," said Wade, "but we've got to push real hard to sell out the Arena for the finals."
The tournament, dedicated to Earl Banks, the late Morgan State football coach and athletic director, is more than just a sports event. The mayor has tied the basketball competition to academics. Three $500 scholarships will be awarded to high school essay winners replying to the question, "Why I want to attend an MEAC school."
Academic counselors from the historically black MEAC colleges will be on hand at Morgan on Friday to answer questions from area high school students about their respective schools. And former Coppin star and present Washington Bullets forward Larry Stewart will head a stay-in-school program while visiting middle schools.
Free voiced surprise that Baltimore had not pushed hard to hold the tournament since its last appearance here in 1974.
That year, center Marvin Webster led Morgan to a Division II NCAA title, and Joe Pace, who would become a Bullets draft choice, led UMES to a National Invitation Tournament bid after upsetting Morgan in the conference final.
"That was an unusual time for the Baltimore area," said Free. "We used to pack the Greensboro arena when North Carolina A&T was a perennial powerhouse, but then we moved the tournament to Norfolk as a neutral site."
In recent years, the MEAC tourney has had trouble attracting fans to Norfolk, and the move to Baltimore might give the conference a financial boost.
Tickets for the MEAC men's and women's basketball tournaments (tomorrow through Saturday at Morgan State's Hill
Field House, Sunday at the Baltimore Arena) are available at the Arena (410) 347-2010, TicketMaster (410) 481-7328, Coppin State and Morgan State.
Tickets for children and students are $5 per day for tomorrow through Saturday and $7 for Sunday. Adult tickets are $10 for Thursday and $15 for Friday through Sunday.
The MEAC Tip-Off Banquet is 7 o'clock tonight at The Omni, and the keynote speaker is Charles Grantham, executive director of the NBA Players' Association. Tickets are invitation only.