It's early, but IBL just might be A-OK

November 27, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

One loss is enough. Fire coach Herb Brown. Sign new players. Toss the mascot -- Bagel, Bayzl, whatever his name is -- into the Inner Harbor.

When will the owner act?

Oops, forgot.

The owner -- er, part-owner -- is Cal Ripken.

Seriously, no one in the announced crowd of 9,000 seemed too upset with the BayRunners' 107-95 loss to the hated Trenton Shooting Stars last night in their International Basketball League debut.

It was a fun opening to a new chapter in the city's sports history, and unlike when the Canadian Football League came to town in 1993, no one had to learn the rules.

This was basketball, baby -- Baltimore basketball, complete with home-grown stars Rodney Elliott, Shawnta Rogers, Keith Booth and Kurk Lee.

And even if the fans left early, they seemed to have a good time.

Was opening night a success? Hey, it's a success any time a team explodes fireworks inside the prehistoric Baltimore Arena, and the place doesn't burn to the ground.

The BayRunners blew a six-point lead in the fourth quarter, and Rogers and Booth sat in the final minutes after starting. But Elliott led all scorers with 26 points, including five three-pointers.

The real question is if the BayRunners will be good enough to build a legitimate fan base in Baltimore, starting with their second home game against Master P (!) and the San Diego Stingrays on Wednesday night.

BayRunners president Greg Smith addressed the crowd before the game and spoke about "drawing from a true cross-section of Baltimore." For one night at least, he appeared to achieve his goal. The crowd was racially mixed, vocal and enthusiastic throughout.

"The atmosphere was terrific," Brown said. "I didn't like the fact that everyone left at the end. you've got to stay with the home team. We were battling. We weren't playing very well, but we were battling. You need those people to stay. You see them leaving, it hurts."

Still, Brown knows the deal -- win, and the fans will cheer to the final buzzer. For all its faults, the Arena still works best as a basketball venue. The sightlines are excellent, the fans hover over the court, and there's more of a buzz than at many NBA arenas. Throw in the BayRunners' mascot, cheerleaders, fireworks and contests, and it all sort of works, in a hokey, minor-league way.

The difference is, this is basketball. And even though the Bullets left after the 1972-73 season, Baltimore remains a basketball town.

How much does the city miss the pro game? Enough that the idea of building a new arena to lure an NBA team still appeals to many politicians, including outgoing Mayor Kurt Schmoke, who was at courtside last night.

"I know a lot of people that go down to D.C. to see the Wizards," Schmoke said. "There are lots of folks that really want professional basketball. Everyone understands this isn't the NBA. But I think this league is going to be very successful. Their prices are such that they're going to bring families out."

The odds might be against the IBL surviving in Baltimore, which has never shown much support for minor-league sports, but the sporting landscape is no longer predictable. The number of fans who are disenchanted with major professional sports seems larger than ever before.

That disenchantment is impossible to quantify, especially when the Orioles and Ravens sell out nearly every game despite losing records. But how many fans are priced out by the Orioles and Ravens? How many find it difficult to relate to the inaccessible athletes, the exorbitant salaries, the relentless player and franchise movement?

Those are the people the IBL must win over.

Indeed, the irony was inescapable when Ripken and Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis graced the court during pre-game and halftime ceremonies -- with ticket prices starting at $10, the BayRunners are trying to attract precisely the kinds of fans who can't afford to see those superstars play in person.

Again, the IBL is a long shot, just like any start-up minor league. But the CFL Stallions found a niche during their two-year run in Baltimore. The Blast has done the same, tapping into the area's soccer community. Arena Football, extreme sports, even professional wrestling -- they all exist comfortably outside the mainstream.

Your average 10-year-old would rather play video games than attend a sporting event. But if you pull that child away from a Gameboy or Sega Dreamcast, chances are that he or she would enjoy a Blast game more than a Ravens' game, a Frederick Keys' game more than an Orioles' game. And now here come the BayRunners, featuring a player to whom all kids can relate -- the 5-foot-4 Rogers.

Then there is the African-American community, the single-largest voting bloc in Baltimore, not that you'd know it from the makeup of the crowds at Camden Yards. The black middle class might be substantial enough to support an NBA team at a new arena. Is it possible the IBL could fill the void?

Booth, Rogers, Elliott, Lee -- these are players that Baltimore basketball fans have followed since high school. It was almost poignant, seeing them on the floor together in the first quarter. Was this a rainy November night, or a hot summer night at the Dome?

"Even today, when we came in earlier, we were talking about it, laughing and joking about the old days, the rivalries all the way back to high school," Elliott said. "In the long run, we'll have some good times -- some good, winning times."

If they do, the BayRunners could be onto something special. Home-grown players, modestly priced tickets, basketball-hungry fans -- it seems the perfect combination for success. Now all the team must do is win, for that is where it all begins.

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