Finally hoisted, long may 'Battle' flag wave

November 21, 1998|By John Eisenberg

There's only one problem with the "Battle of Baltimore" college basketball tournament. It should have started years ago.

But now that it's a reality, in the first year of a four-year contract, with an inaugural championship game between Towson and Loyola set for tonight at the Towson Center, let's hope it stays forever.

A tournament for the local Division I teams was always one of those terrific ideas that hadn't happened, mainly because there were so many easy excuses. The athletic directors didn't want to give up any early-season road-kill paydays. The coaches weren't thrilled about losing to crosstown teams. Several saw no upside in playing opponents that alumni expected them to beat.

You get the picture. As often happens in local politics, sports and business, conflicting agendas kept a good idea down.

Actually, Towson, Loyola, UMBC and Mount St. Mary's started something called the Beltway Classic in the '80s, but it died after several years because Coppin State and Morgan State weren't on board, depriving the event of a) the city's best team and b) the team with the best fans.

Coppin and Morgan still have to alternate at one spot in the "Battle" because they're from the same conference and can't play each other in a tournament, but their participation makes the event more of an unofficial city championship.

It's too bad Maryland-Eastern Shore, Navy and Mount St. Mary's couldn't also play in what would amount to a non-Terps state championship, but that's too big and asking too much, apparently. Oh, well.

The presence of Coppin, which beat South Carolina in an NCAA tournament game two years ago, is particularly important to the "Battle." It's a shame coach Fang Mitchell and the Eagles weren't part of the first tournament this year, but they could end up hosting the second one at the Coppin Center next year, which should help. More than any other team, they'll give the event broader shoulders.

The bottom line is that the local teams are on the same page and the same court at last, thanks to a fine godfathering job by WMAR-TV, which is televising the event. A loud crowd of almost 2,000 attended the semifinals Thursday night, and more are expected tonight. What's at stake?

"Bragging rights," Towson guard Damon Cason said after helping the Tigers beat Morgan with a late surge Thursday night. Loyola defeated UMBC by 12 points in the other semifinal.

Cason, who played at Southern High, is one of 17 players in the tournament who played his high school basketball in Maryland. Loyola and Towson each has five, Morgan has four and UMBC three.

"We know each other, we see each other and we play with and against each other," said Cason, who played on the same youth league team as Morgan guard Jimmy Fields. "The winners get to do the talking. It's all in fun, of course. We're all friends. But you want to win home-town bragging rights."

When the four teams filmed a commercial together at Federal Hill last month, some mind games were played. Cason said Loyola guard Jason Rowe was "all cocky." They'll settle the score tonight on the court, as local rivals should.

The "Battle" follows a splendid tradition of steamy games between local teams in Philadelphia, where the Big Five ruled for many years before melting down a decade ago, and also in New York, Boston, Cincinnati and, well, you name it. Anywhere that teams share a city, they usually play. That's also happened here to some degree, but never under the umbrella of an organized, televised tournament.

As for the charge that the teams are nowhere near the top of Division I, there's no defense. You can't sugarcoat that issue. These teams spend November and December getting whacked by major teams in exchange for major paydays. They are what they are.

But that's not to say there's no tradition of excellence. Towson had a run of NCAA-caliber teams when Kurk Lee and others were playing for former coach Terry Truax. Loyola made an NCAA appearance several years ago. UMBC coach Tom Sullivan is putting together a quality program. Morgan's long-suffering Bears are playing a lot better under coach Chris Fuller despite not having a home gym.

You won't see Steve Francis or Laron Profit playing in the "Battle of Baltimore," but this year you could see the possible Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Player of the Year, Morgan's Rasheed Sparks; the Big South Conference's Freshman of the Year in each of the past two seasons, UMBC's Isaac Green and Kennedy Okafor, and Loyola's Rowe, a major-league point guard.

It's what local college basketball has always been: a good time for fans who can enjoy a game that isn't necessarily destined for "SportsCenter," yet is marked by passion, no small amount of skill and no lockouts.

It's an endeavor worth supporting, in other words, a good idea made real at last. Here's hoping the inaugural "Battle of Baltimore" is the start of a tradition that sticks.

Pub Date: 11/21/98

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