They lacked money, prestige -- heck, even the right equipment. But they were extraordinary athletes with extraordinary determination. Long before football came back to town, this was Baltimore's dream team.


September 01, 1996|By Lisa Pollak | Lisa Pollak,SUN STAFF

Suppose there was a team that couldn't play the game. team that didn't have enough people, didn't own the right equipment, didn't know the moves, didn't stand a chance.

Suppose this team got trounced but kept trying. Suppose this team got pummeled but kept growing. Added young, scrappy guys with raw talent. Lured a flashy franchise player -- one of the best in the world -- and a cool-headed veteran who had mastered the game. Suppose this team started winning, and the fans started following, and together they went all the way to the national tournament, where the best in the country battled for the sport's highest honor.

Suppose this team was the Baltimore Ravens.

That's right. Long before Art Modell and Vinny Testaverde, long before seat licenses and stadium plans, a Cinderella team named the Ravens had it all: energy, desire, promise, youth, stars and style. Everything, that is, except money and status, and maybe that was part of the magic, too. How many teams invite their fans out to celebrate after games? How many teams give a trophy to the bus driver?

These were the Ravens, the original Baltimore Ravens, and they were as great a fledgling team as any city could want. But the networks didn't cover them. The newspapers hardly knew them. The score books are missing or long thrown away. Twenty six years ago, when the whole thing started, they were just a bunch of guys hanging out in a gym, learning the game, sizing up each other.

Which, when you think about it, is how all teams start -- even wheelchair basketball teams, like the Baltimore Ravens.

"It was a magic time."

-- Ralph Smith, Ravens' founder

Ralph Smith never expected his team to win. In the beginning, he just wanted to give the guys something to do.

Not that there weren't other activities in Baltimore for men with disabilities. At the League -- the Baltimore-Central Maryland League for Crippled Children and Adults, as it was called in 1970 -- there was singing, swimming, even wheelchair square-dancing. But when it came to competitive sports, there was nothing.

Smith, the League's red-bearded recreation director, wanted to change that.

An able-bodied high school and college basketball player, Smith had never even heard of wheelchair basketball until one of his teachers at Western Maryland College showed him an article on it. But he'd been interested in working with the disabled &L community ever since the summer he taught a neighborhood boy with cerebral palsy to swim. And during college, he'd been a counselor at the League's summer camp for the disabled.

Smith was intrigued by this relatively new sport, which had started in Veterans Administration hospitals and grown to a highly competitive national league. He was so intrigued that in 1965 he went to graduate school at the University of Illinois, home of the Illinois Gizz Kids, the first college wheelchair basketball team in the country.

Wheelchair basketball shares most of the rules of NCAA basketball, except players must have disabilities which prevent them from playing on their feet. Though he was ineligible to play, Smith became the Gizz Kids' scorekeeper, and the players let him join in at practice to experience the game.

Smith was amazed by it: How quickly the players raced up and down the court in their chairs, how swiftly they maneuvered around each other, how forcefully they shot and passed the ball from their seats. The sport required enormous strength and endurance; after a few times pushing himself up and down the court, Smith didn't have enough energy to shoot the ball.

The Gizz Kids were soon to become famous for a star guard named Tom Brown, who was born without legs but blessed with a deadly shot; his 39-point game in 1968 still holds the tournament scoring record. How good was Brown? Today, people compare him not to other wheelchair basketball players, but to NBA greats Jerry West, Bob Cousy, John Stockton and Larry Bird.

But that's getting ahead of the story.

At the League, Smith wanted to start a wheelchair basketball team of his own. His first obstacle was equipment. The League only stocked hospital-style wheelchairs -- not the lighter, customized chairs typically used for wheelchair sports -- meaning Smith's players would be like able-bodied players trying to run the court in combat boots.

That is, if he had any players. The only person at the League who'd ever played before was John James, who learned the sport in a rehabilitation center after having polio. James, already over 40 and destined to be the team's elder statesman, took on the task of teaching others the game.

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