Area legends try to recapture past glory 'Grassroots League' event mixes hoops and hip-hop

November 02, 1996|By Michael Lewis | Michael Lewis,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Marty Johnson's voice goes up a few octaves just talking about it.

By day, Johnson is a partner in a real estate investment firm in Baltimore. But several times a year, including this weekend, the former Cardinal Gibbons and Towson State star gets to play what he loves more than anything else in the world: playground basketball.

"Man, when you get out there and everybody's so pumped up to play and playing at such a high level, you just get such a great feeling," Johnson says. "There's nothing else like it."

Johnson and 39 other Baltimore-area hard-court legends will be participating in the first Coors Light U.S. Grassroots League (USGL) basketball tournament today at the Fifth Regiment Armory. The round-robin event, also featuring hip-hop music performances from M. C. Lyte, Yo Yo and New Faces, begins at 2 p.m. Each team will have 10 players, with the winning team at the end of the day receiving $5,000.

The USGL is the brainchild of Chris Christmas and Jeff Penix, two 30-year-olds from the West Coast. Last year they decided they wanted to reach out to inner cities and create events that meld the worlds of hip-hop and basketball. Bringing together local players who had worlds of talent but never made it to the NBA, the USGL offers a chance for fans to see what became of some schoolboy legends from their area. The inaugural event was held last September in Atlanta.

"We wanted to come to Baltimore for our second show because this place has always been a legendary basketball market," Christmas says. "So many top players are from the Baltimore-D.C. area that we knew we wouldn't have trouble finding guys to play."

With the help of recruiting coordinator Dallas Grasty, Christmas and Penix have assembled many top players from the past two decades, including former Walbrook High/Virginia Union star Derwin Lilly and ex-Dunbar High/Clemson star Skip Wise.

"Ultimately, we'd like to expand this to eight cities," says Tonya -- Bessillieu, a Coors spokeswoman.

The rules for USGL tournaments vary greatly from traditional basketball. The shot clock in USGL is only 19 seconds, dunks count as three points and bank shots from behind the three-point line are worth four points.

In addition, each player is allowed seven fouls. However, after a player's fourth foul he must sit in a hockey-style penalty box for 30 seconds.

The musicians will perform between games and during timeouts.

"We're hoping that we get a mixture of older people who've seen these guys play and young people who love the music," Christmas says. "I think fans will really take to it, and the players love getting to be famous again for a day."

Fact box

What: The U.S. Grassroots League basketball tournament

When: Today, 2 p.m.

Where: Fifth Regiment Armory

Who: Featuring former local high school stars: Skip Wise (Dunbar/Clemson), Derwin Lilly (Walbrook/Va. Union), Marty Johnson (Gibbons/Towson State), and other area players.

Tickets: $10 for adults, $1 for children under 13.

Pub Date: 11/02/96

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