Where are the crowds at academic games?

March 09, 1996|By GREGORY KANE

Goodwin Chen's team clung to a slim four-point lead as the game clock ticked down below 20 seconds. With the poise of a Michael Jordan, he nailed one two-pointer and then another to clinch a 46-38 victory for his team.

Basketball? Hardly. It was something much more fulfilling than basketball and more exciting than the annual turkey called the Super Bowl. It was a semi-final game of Baltimore's National Academic League competition. Chen, a 13-year-old 8th eighth-grader and the captain of Roland Park Middle School's team, correctly answered "mammals" when asked what is the only class of animals to have an outer ear. The game clock showed 13 seconds left.

With time running out, game official Bonnie Legro asked "In The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, quote the words Tom wrote for Becky on his blackboard slate at school." Chen hit the buzzer and correctly answered "I love you," sealing the championship for his team, which dethroned last year's winner Hamilton Middle School.

Baltimore's NAL consists of 16 middle school teams. They all gathered on Wednesday at the city schools' Professional Development Center for the playoffs. The league was formed in Salt Lake City five years ago. Sidney Twiggs, Hamilton's coach, said his team beat Oklahoma City in the playoffs and placed fifth in the country last year.

"We played them (Oklahoma City) by satellite, just before the bombing," said LaTonya Diggs, a 13-year-old Hamilton 8th eighth-grader who was kind enough to explain the details of the competition and NAL history to a 40-something, nearly senile columnist. NAL games are divided into four quarters. The first, second and fourth quarters are question-and-answer sessions either eight, 10 or 12 minutes long. Teams score either one or two points for a correct answer in the first and fourth quarters. Correct answers in the second quarter require more thought and are worth three points.

For the third quarter, each team has to answer a real-life problem posed by officials. As many as 10 students form each third-quarter team. Diggs said judges award teams zero to 25 points for their presentations, which must fall within a three to five minute range.

"If you're over five minutes or under three, judges deduct three points," Diggs, a member of Hamilton's third quarter team, explained. She and her teammates scored 20 points in their first game -- a 48-43 squeaker over Francis Scott Key -- for their anti-smoking presentation. But Diggs said that was easy. They had learned of possible topics two weeks ago and had been advised to do research. The Hamilton and Roland Park third quarter teams had no idea what the topic was for their match.

"We didn't prepare for this one," Diggs confessed, a twinge of worry in her voice. "It'll be interesting to see how it turns out." The problem was developing a campaign to recruit 30 new members for their schools' NAL teams. Hamilton edged Roland Park 20-19 for the quarter.

Goodwin Chen wasn't the only exceptional player. Diggs' teammate, 11-year-old Bryan Cothorn, won game MVP honors for Hamilton's victory over Francis Scott Key. Cothorn wasn't sure how many questions he correctly answered in the Hamilton-Key match, but estimates it was "maybe five or 10." The guy sounds like the Scottie Pippen of the NAL to me, and this Chen boy might be the Michael Jordan.

But let's keep our priorities straight here. Michael Jordan is the Goodwin Chen of the NBA. Scottie Pippen is the Bryan Cothorn of the NBA. For too long both professional and amateur athletes -- even the ones who are overpaid egotists -- have received society's adoration. High school athletes are covered regularly in this newspaper. Their pictures are displayed and their exploits on the football field or basketball court written about extensively.

I've received more than one letter or comment suggesting that we pay equal attention to students who may not be athletically gifted but who are superb academically. Such a long-overdue idea is the basis for the NAL. It is a place where a Bryan Cothorn -- a bright, African-American boy who watches television shows like "Square One" and belongs to the Gardenville Recreation Center's geography club -- can find a niche and not be sucked into the "learning is for nerds" syndrome that afflicts too many boys his age. It's time we give the Bryan Cothorns, the Goodwin Chens and the LaTonya Diggs of city schools their proper place in the sun.

At high noon this Tuesday Philadelphia's NAL champ rides into town to take on Roland Park at the Professional Development Center. Baltimoreans worth their salt should take a lunch break, fill the auditorium and root for Roland Park much the same way we did when Dunbar's basketball team ran DeMatha High School out of the Civic Center back in 1973.

Gregory P. Kane's column appears on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

Pub Date: 3/09/96

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