Delegates on the ball to raise money, stay fit

Competition: State legislators go head-to-head with worthy opponents -- including U.S. congressmen and high school faculty -- on the basketball court to benefit charity organizations.

March 14, 2000|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,SUN STAFF

State Del. Nathaniel T. Oaks is pacing the sidelines at the Baltimore Arena like a big-time college basketball coach.

Never mind that this is a charity contest between state legislators and U.S. congressmen, or that the crowd numbers in the dozens. Oaks is in the basketball zone. He has no time for small talk or a cheap interview. His mind is on the game.

"Act like you know. Act like you know," yells the 53-year-old legislator, who represents Baltimore.

A bad play makes him shout, "You got to pass the ball. We pass it in this league."

"Pop goes the weasel!" he says when a teammate fires up a jump shot.

"What's the matter? You tired?" he says, voice full of schoolyard ridicule. On and on he goes.

"I take everything serious," he says at halftime. "I work hard, and I play hard. This is play, but it's serious."

For the dozen or so legislators and lobbyists who call themselves the Astrodons -- named after the official state dinosaur -- the game is a night off from politics. They spend two or three nights a week practicing at St. John's College or St. Mary's High School, blowing off some legislative steam, playing basketball to stay fit during what one calls "the long sit."

There's plenty of sitting during the General Assembly's 90-day session. There are morning sessions in chambers and afternoon hearings in committees. Temptation calls out from the reception circuit with scores of breakfasts, lunches and dinners. You could eat your way into another pants size or dress size.

"You come to the General Assembly looking fit and looking good, and you leave gaining 10 to 15 pounds," says Talmadge Branch, a state delegate representing Baltimore.

Used to be nothing wrong with that. Bills were passed; legislators were fed. That was Annapolis. Then came the workout craze, the joggers and marathon runners, the baby boomers sweating through full-court games. The idea of going home in April and being mistaken for the Goodyear blimp doesn't register with this crew.

"It's about physical fitness. It's about trying to keep your body in some kind of semblance of shape," says Oaks, who agrees the legislative lifestyle "kind of plays havoc on the body."

Del. Wendell F. Phillips, one of the freshman legislators on the team, says he doesn't feel threatened by the offers of free dining.

"It's not really that dangerous," he says. "You can go, but you don't have to eat. Matter of fact, it's really hard to eat because everyone's up in your face."

In that sense, basketball is an escape from the lobbying and pressuring, the sitting and listening. It's just hoops. It's not a flashy, above-the-rim game, though Clay C. Opara, a former delegate, comes close to dunking on a lay-up. And, it's not a young man's game.

"Just let the record show that there were a couple of guys over 50 out here," Del. Dan K. Morhaim (D-Baltimore County), 51, says during a Thursday night practice at St. John's. Morhaim is a two-sport guy. He's also training for this year's U.S. Marine Corps Marathon.

The gym at St. John's doesn't smell of old sweat and funky socks, certainly no surprise. The folks here study Ptolemy, Euclid and the Great Books, not Magic, Bird and the enduring legacy of Phi Slamma Jamma. The legislators' practice games are relatively quiet, until Oaks shows up, ready to talk.

"Way to go strong. Way to go strong," he says, congratulating one player. "That was not a bad pass. That was not a bad pass," he says, shifting into critical coach mode. "You got to meet the ball."

Later, by way of clarification, he says: "This is not a new phenomenon. We just got new guys on the block thinking it's new."

The new guys are from the 1998 freshman class. There's Del. Paul H. Carlson, a 30-year-old Montgomery County Democrat; Phillips, who is 36; and Del. Robert A. Zirkin, a 28-year-old Democrat from Baltimore County.

Credit Zirkin with taking the team to another level. Last year the legislators just played pick-up games. Now they have a name, uniforms, games lined up. Tomorrow they'll be taking on the faculty at Randallstown High School in a benefit game called "Hoop Dreams for Randallstown." They'll be raising money for a school scholarship fund.

"They're apparently very good players," says Zirkin.

Perhaps they'll be better than the Capital All Stars, the team from Congress. Their matchup raises about $1,000 for the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. It was competitive for about five minutes but ends in a romp. Everyone plays.

"You saw my jump shot, didn't you?" asks Sen. Alex X. Mooney during a breather. "Not the air ball. The one that got nothing but net."

The Frederick County Republican wants it known that he, too, can shoot the rock and hit "nothing but net." By halftime, the only question is whether the Astrodons will extend some charity to the men from Washington. The locals are up 30 to 11. Is it the coach? Is it the shoes? Is it youth and speed. Whatever it is, Oaks is not satisfied.

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