Offering an old arena (built in 1962) with limited seating (12,903) and convincing officials of the NCAA that it could serve as one of the staging locations for the first two rounds of its basketball championship was an upset in itself. Now Baltimore wants to do it again, requesting the same event be held here when open dates are next available.
That means Baltimore must stand in line for 1999 because the NCAA schedules four years in advance. However, if some city that has been selected encounters complications during the interim, the NCAA knows it has an option it can go to in Baltimore.
The University of Maryland Baltimore County, as official host, and the Baltimore Arena combined to throw a basketball party that surpassed all expectations. Bill Hancock, director of the Division I tournament for the NCAA, and Terry Holland, director of athletics at Davidson College, who was here to supervise the details, were elated with the presentation.
Martin Schwartz, director of development for athletics at UMBC, said, "I didn't hear a negative. Visitors from the competing schools and the huge media contingent loved the city. It was a positive experience for Baltimore, the arena, UMBC and the national exposure that was received."
The idea to attempt to have the games in Baltimore was initiated by Bob Zurfluh of Centre Management four years ago. He worked with UMBC to put the bid together and Hancock visited the city to see if it was a viable consideration.
"When Mr. Hancock arrived to inspect the site, to meet with the steering committee, the first place he was taken was to City Hall to talk with the mayor," related Edie Brown, public relations director of the Arena. "Mr. Hancock had never met a mayor before. The two men had an instant rapport. Kurt Schmoke, of course, being a former athlete, understood what had to be done and gave his complete enthusiasm and full cooperation."
Hancock liked the location of the arena, its close proximity to hotels, and the way the city presented itself. Schwartz and Charles Brown, UMBC athletic director, had been told, starting off, that Baltimore's chances were remote but they persevered, along with the convention bureau, and won the award.
The NCAA appropriated around $135,000 in start-up expenses, the arena used its staff and will show a profit, plus the host school will make up to $70,000. That's hardly a financial bonanza for UMBC, but it created immense goodwill within the area, along with giving its alumni a rare opportunity to buy tickets, and saw to it that Baltimore had another successful national athletic event, following the 1993 All-Star Baseball Game and the 1988 Women's Open Golf Championship.
If there was a surprise, it was the way the Arena dressed itself for the occasion. Instead of having to look at barren walls, miles of blue drapes were rented and put in place to cover the area. The red, white and blue NCAA logo was everywhere and the catering by Martin's West for the visiting earned rich compliments from the non-stop eaters, who were being fed at all hours -- before, during and after games. They had no time to complain.
"I've only been to Baltimore once before," said coach Charlie Spoonhour, of Saint Louis University, which lost to Wake Forest in the second round, "but I have to say how impressed I am with the way these games were put on and the friendliness that has been shown to all of us. I know it was the kind of an experience you like to see your team enjoy and we thank everyone."
Brown, the PR specialist for the facility, said the function proved how essential it was to get cooperation from all involved, plus explaining how the NCAA provides an operating manual that covers every aspect of procedures.
"If you have any question at all, you only need consult the NCAA book," he said. "It tells you what to do, even to the configuration of the press room that's used for post-game interviews. We want the NCAA to come back as soon as possible."
As to the crowd, a complete sellout, Steve Levy of UMBC said he believed around 75 percent of the tickets went to area fans, which made Baltimore happy. The massive historical plaque in the lobby of the Arena marks the place where the Continental Congress met in 1776, long before basketball was invented, and drew attention from first-time visitors.
The building isn't that old, it should be specified, but certainly one of the best things that could happen to Baltimore would be a decision to build a domed stadium modeled after the downtown facility in Toronto. With a retractable roof, it could accommodate football, basketball, boxing, track meets, soccer, hockey, lacrosse and other sports.
Baltimore then could offer a facility that would make it a true major-league sports center. Instead of hosting a preliminary part of the NCAA basketball program it could be the site for the grand finale, as happens in Seattle on April 3. It's an aspiration that deserves reality because of what it would mean for a city that needs all the help it can get.