A rich basketball tradition Recreation: Madison Square has a record of preparing youngsters for success in more than just sports.

December 09, 1997|By Christian Ewell | Christian Ewell,SUN STAFF

At one end of the dinky, sweat-soaked court at East Baltimore's Madison Square Recreation Center, 20 9-year-olds from the Buccaneers basketball program run conditioning drills, sprinting to half court and back.

On the opposite end, one 18-year-old shows what he learned on the same court. Mark Karcher, twice the Baltimore metropolitan area's player of the year and now a freshman at Temple University in Philadelphia, nails jump shot after jump shot with the same form that made him the latest star to come through the basketball mecca at 1401 E. Biddle St.

Although best-known for the showcase summer games on the outdoor court known as "The Dome" that has featured players such as Keith Booth, Sam Cassell, Reggie Williams and Muggsy Bogues, Madison Square pulsates with activity in the fall-winter basketball season. On average, 50 to 70 players use the gym daily, from the Madison Square Bucs Inner-City Youth Program, to St. Frances Academy, to a church league and individual players looking for a game.

But the 35-year-old rec center's contribution to life in the rundown section of East Baltimore extends beyond the basketball court, serving as a haven for area youths and preparing them for success in all walks of life.

On a recent Tuesday night, during a Buccaneers practice, a letter carrier, Tim Green, and a politician, City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young, stand at the edge of the gym, old friends reunited. The coach, Gary Brooks, is a NationsBank executive, also from the area.

The director of the center, William Wells, coached Karcher during his scholastic days at St. Frances Academy and remembers playing basketball against former Mayor Clarence H. Du Burns and state Sen. Nathaniel J. McFadden.

"A lot of professional people got their starts at the rec center," Wells said. "Everyone wanted to be a 'pro.' But there were people who were going to college to be doctors and lawyers and those were the people who truly benefited from the rec center."

Rodney Floyd, a welfare case worker for the city, grew up across the street from Madison and volunteers nightly at the center. He said the same principles of discipline that ruled three decades ago under the center's first director, James "Captain" Smith, are in place now.

Because the center is known as a place to have fun, there is an incentive for youths to be more receptive to volunteers at the center, as opposed to their teachers at school.

"They don't care if they get sent home from school. They just don't want to get put out of the rec," Floyd said. "So they come in here and have good behavior, the best attitude. After coming here year after year, hopefully that attitude will internalize."

Henry "Sarge" Powell, director of the Madison Buccaneers program, which has teams ages 9 to 18, said many of the young players are oblivious to the history of the center.

"They often don't know the reputation, but their parents will say, 'Keith Booth played here,' " said Powell, referring to the former Dunbar and University of Maryland star now in his rookie season with the NBA's Chicago Bulls.

Madison Square has been attracting top talent almost since it opened in 1962 as one of the few rec centers in the city with a summer basketball league.

Wells, a director at Madison since 1975, said that people would cram around the outdoor court to see the action, in anticipation of appearances by pro or major college players, such as Hall of Famers Earl Monroe and Wes Unseld of the Baltimore Bullets.

"Hundreds and hundreds of people used to come in for games, before the Dome. You were fighting to get a seat because you didn't know who was going to show up," he said.

A decade after Madison opened, in the early 1970s, came the Dome: a flat, gray roof over the outdoor court that today in summer attracts up to 4,000 spectators on concrete bleachers, creating a lusty mix of oppressive heat, sardine-can crowds and traffic jams.

In its early days, Dunbar stars Skip Wise and Larry Gibson attracted overflow crowds at the Dome.

Leon Howard, who coached Wise and Gibson during the summer at Lafayette Square Recreation Center and would later coach Williams and Cassell, said the scene made Madison more than the talent.

"People would flock up there in the thousands to see those guys play," Howard said, "but a lot of those guys never played for Madison. The scene of those kids playing there, made Madison what it is today."

Marc Wilson, assistant coach for women's basketball at the University of Minnesota, remembers his days playing at the Dome in the Baltimore Neighborhood Basketball League, a sink-or-swim atmosphere that the city's top players lived for.

Wilson, who played at Calvert Hall during the early 1980s and later at Minnesota, said the Dome's crowds and exclusivity lent a sense of urgency to play well.

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