`Midnight' an oasis in hoops-thirsty city

August 09, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

At 10 p.m., with the heat and humidity of another 95-degree day still lingering in the air, Shawnta Rogers put the ball between his legs, behind his back and though the basket on a high carom off the backboard.

A thousand fans packed into the bleachers at the Dome, Baltimore's legendary playground court, roared in appreciation.

Another night of the Midnight Madness summer league was under way.

A schedule taped to the door of the Madison Square Recreation Center on Biddle Street called for three games in three hours, ending after midnight.

Rogers, one of college basketball's top players last season, was teamed with former Dunbar and Maryland star Rodney Elliott and Kevin Norris of Lake Clifton and the University of Miami.

Temple's Mark Karcher would play in the second game, as would Michael Lloyd, formerly of Dunbar and Syracuse. Kurk Lee, the king of East Baltimore during his playing days at Dunbar and Towson State, was scheduled to play in the final game.

"Everyone plays the Dome," said Lee, 32, as he watched the first game from the bleachers.

"It's the best thing about basketball in Baltimore," said Lloyd, who will play for a pro team in France next season. "When [pro] players from Baltimore see each other during the season, in any city, state or country, they talk about meeting back at the Dome."

It's an indoor/outdoor facility located directly behind the rec center, with the court surrounded by a chain-link fence on three sides and topped by a low-slung roof. There are rows of bleachers on either side of the court. Lighting is adequate at best.

Various summer leagues have existed at the site for close to 30 years, drawing every Baltimore "name" from Skip Wise to Muggsy Bogues to Rogers.

"You can't name a [major] player who hasn't played here," said William Wells, who runs the rec center and also serves as the head coach at St. Frances.

The Midnight Madness league, in its seventh season, is bigger and more organized than any of its predecessors. There's an official sponsor (Johns Hopkins) and food vendors. Smoke from somebody's grill drifts over the court.

The tripleheaders every Monday and Wednesday are free to fans -- the best sports bargain in town. When the bleachers fill up, fans gather behind the fence and watch from the sidewalk. Think of it as a basketball-themed street fair.

"People tell me I'd be rich if I charged admission," Wells said.

The games started at midnight for the league's first two years, but that was too late; even true basketball fans balked at pulling all-nighters. Now, a 9 p.m. start is a tradition.

"The idea is to give people something to enjoy on a hot summer night," Wells said. "The police tell us crime is down in the area when we're playing, which is gratifying."

There's plenty of theater to go with the basketball, as players, fans, coaches and refs jaw back and forth, mostly in fun. Good plays are rewarded with ooohs and aaahs. The crowd is knowledgeable, to say the least.

"These are your real basketball fans here, the people who love the game," Lee said.

For every name player on the court, there are several high school and playground stars who never advanced to the next level.

"This is their NBA, their version of the big time," Lee said.

But the crowds come to watch the names, the local kids who lived the dream and made it on the national stage. They're the chosen few, the ones getting to play for pay -- if not in the NBA, then in a minor league or Europe.

Lee, who spent two seasons with the NBA's New Jersey Nets after graduating from Towson, has spent the past four seasons playing in Finland for a six-figure, guaranteed salary. He's now in negotiations with the Baltimore BayRunners, the new International Basketball League team, which begins play in the fall.

"I'd love for it to work out," Lee said. "The money has to be right. But I'm tired of playing so far from home."

Rogers, Elliott and Lloyd all are on the same fringe, hopeful of making the NBA, but probably destined for a lesser league. BayRunners assistant coach Terry Truax, formerly the head coach at Towson, scouts the Dome regularly. The BayRunners want as many local players as possible, to help lure fans.

"The fans here tonight, they'll pay to watch the BayRunners," Wells said. "This is [the BayRunners'] audience."

It's a pure basketball audience, an assembly of true believers operating under the cover of darkness.

They went nuts when NBA star Sam Cassell, formerly of Dunbar, showed up and played in a game earlier this summer. Several weeks later, 5,000 of them packed the gym at Morgan State to watch a Midnight Madness All-Star team beat a team from Washington.

Tonight, they'll fill the Dome again for another tripleheader.

"As long as I'm playing ball, I'll be here every year," Michael Lloyd said. "You can't beat summer nights at the Dome."

Pub Date: 8/09/99

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