They're Baltimore's Bullets, too

November 26, 1994|By KEN ROSENTHAL

Juwan Howard and Chris Webber were born three weeks apart in 1973, the Bullets' final season in Baltimore.

"A while ago," Webber said, laughing. Twenty-one years, to be exact. Time enough for the city to revitalize itself. And time enough for the Bullets to win an NBA title, fall into a decade-long slumber and snap out of it, too.

Jack Kent Cooke dreams of turning the Redskins into a regional phenomenon, but it's the Bullets who now stand the best chance of matching the Orioles' popularity in both Baltimore and Washington.

That is, if they're willing.

And if Baltimore is willing, as well.

The additions of Webber and Howard should be enough to rouse even the most casual fans. Heck, to the city's black community, Webber is probably a far bigger deal than Cal Ripken.

The Bullets buried their past; now, Baltimore should follow suit. Based on the early returns, the city appears ready to forgive and forget. Abe Pollin was never a match for Bob Irsay, anyway.

Maybe now Baltimore will enter the '90s, and turn on to the NBA. The Bullets posted their 13th straight sellout at the Baltimore Arena last night, but this one was different. Everything is different now because of Howard and Webber.

Team president Susan O'Malley said the club held 400 top seats until the last minute. Fans were snapping up four-game Baltimore plans so quickly, the Bullets didn't want to be caught short.

Caught short in Baltimore.

What a concept.

The Bullets moved to Landover in 1973, and with good reason. Their highest average attendance in Baltimore was 7,635 -- in 1968-69, Wes Unseld's rookie year.

The average jumped to 10,102 their first season in Landover, dipped to near-Baltimore levels in the early '80s, then increased every season starting in '89-90, peaking at 15,116 last season.

The four games in Baltimore?

"They sold out, but they weren't an easy sell," said vice president of sales Rick Moreland, who headed the team's Baltimore office in '92-93.

"It was a day-of-game sell. We were pushing the star players we were bringing in, just as we were doing [in Washington], prior to this trade."

The Bullets also were discounting large blocks of tickets for sponsors when they could not move them at full price. That no longer will be necessary, with Webber and Howard in the house.

Now is the time to go regional.

Now, more than ever.

"I can't lie. I copied from Larry Lucchino's Orioles," O'Malley said. "It's not the Baltimore Orioles. It's not the Washington Bullets.

"That was the idea of putting games up in Baltimore, an office up in Baltimore, doing a certain percentage of our community work in Baltimore."

Still, Moreland said only 11 percent of the Bullets' attendance at USAir Arena comes from the Baltimore area, including Howard and northern Anne Arundel counties.

"I would anticipate it would jump dramatically," Moreland said -- maybe not to the 25 percent the Orioles draw from the D.C. area, but probably to somewhere in between.

"People want to see top-level basketball, just like people in the Washington area want to see top-level baseball," said Unseld, the team's former coach, now an executive VP.

There's just one hitch.

What happens if the Bullets carry out plans to move to a new, 23,000-seat arena in downtown Washington? Would they keep playing their four games in Baltimore?

It's an interesting question. The Baltimore Arena holds only 12,756 -- exactly 6,000 fewer than USAir Arena, and more than 10,000 fewer than the proposed building in D.C.

At an average ticket price of $30, the lost revenue would exceed $300,000 per game, $1.2 million overall -- and prices likely would be higher by September 1997, the date of the scheduled move.

Still, O'Malley can envision the new arena strengthening the club's position in Baltimore -- the downtown location would be as accessible by public transportation as Camden Yards is to Washington.

Anyway, it's all very speculative -- does anyone seriously think new D.C. Mayor Marion Barry can swing a new arena for the Bullets and Capitals and a new stadium for the Redskins?

The fact is, the Bullets like the atmosphere in Baltimore. What's more, even if the decision were strictly business, Pollin might not move the games. His company, Centre Group, manages both USAir and Baltimore arenas.

Right now, the future is impossible to predict -- heck, Webber might depart as a restricted free agent after this season. If that happens, the Bullets will be back where they started, in Baltimore, and in Washington, too.

But first things first.

Wake up, Baltimore.

The NBA is back.

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