Three of Blast's giants set to be Hall pioneers

Cooper, Stamenkovic, Stankovic to be honored with inductions tonight

January 10, 2004|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

When Kenny Cooper walks through Baltimore-Washington International Airport, people still call him "Coach" and ask about the team. And though Cooper is now a businessman in Dallas, it is fitting he is still identified with the indoor soccer team that would not even have come to Baltimore if not for him.

Cooper and all-star players Mike Stankovic and the late Stan Stamenkovic will become the first inductees into the Blast Hall of Fame tonight during a ceremony at 1st Mariner Arena.

As Cooper was preparing to travel here for the induction, he recalled his instant rapport with this city and how it happened that the Houston Summit made the move to Baltimore.

"Our owner, Bernie Rodin, had narrowed the choice to Baltimore or Boston and said it was up to me," said Cooper, a native of Blackpool, England.

"I came to Baltimore and was excited from the beginning. It just reminded me of Liverpool. The drive in from the airport was like going to Liverpool. The harbor and the people. It was like home away from home for me. It just took me back in time.

"And once you get to know those people, they're like the salt of the earth. Boston or Baltimore? I never even made the trip to Boston."

Cooper, 59, said his family's best friends are still in Baltimore.

He arrived here in 1980 with his dark suit, red handkerchief and effervescent personality and set out to sweep a city off its feet - a feat he accomplished in the 1980s, when the Blast consistently drew nearly 12,000 fans a game to the Baltimore Arena.

He became the team's first magician, using his talent for inspirational speaking to blend an irresistible mix of talent. He concocted a team that captured the fans' hearts with its blue-collar work ethic.

And it was a team that included such local players as Nick Mangione and Tim Wittman, other Americans such as Dave MacWilliams, Joe Fink, Scott Manning and Keith Van Eron and foreign players such as Stankovic, Stamenkovic and Heinz Wirtz.

"I remember, before I joined the Blast, I was in high school and everywhere I went it was `Kenny Cooper, Kenny Cooper, Kenny Cooper,' " said Wittman, who is now the Blast's coach.

"He took this sport from zero to packing the stands. Kenny was a professional in the way he handled everything - and there was always a show. And he had all these sayings."

For instance:

Aggravation outweighs production.

Dare to be great.

I want you to leave a piece of yourself on the carpet.

We've got role models, not parole models.

"I think he carried a Reader's Digest in his back pocket," said Wittman, laughing. "But motivation was his biggest strength as a coach. No one was better."

In the summer of 1983, Cooper brought Stamenkovic - the team's second magician - to town. Stamenkovic immediately promised to make Cooper's prediction of a title in four years come true.

As the Colts packed up and left the city in March 1984, the Blast was heating up. Playing .500 soccer in the first few months, the team finally began to click, ripping off a 17-game winning streak that led to the division, conference and, eventually, MISL titles.

Stamenkovic was not your typical soccer player. In a game of thin and swift athletes, he was a hefty, relatively stationary player who did not bother to hide the fact that he smoked and loved pizza.

He arrived here a meaty 225 to 230 pounds with a contract that would reward him for weight loss. A bit under 6 feet, he promised to get down to 190.

Dancing feet

And though he roped the team's youngest member, Wittman, into buying him six-packs of beer on some road trips, he did eventually - with the help of everyone on the team - make the desired weight.

But Stamenkovic, at any weight, had a gift. He had feet that danced.

"I remember, I was about 10 years old and I went to my first or second indoor game in Phoenix with a friend and his parents," said the Blast's current goalie, Scott Hileman.

"I remember my friend's parents telling me we were going to see `the best player you'll ever see. He does everything with the bottom of his feet.' I remember being amazed."

It was as if Stamenkovic had an invisible string connecting his foot with the ball. He could roll it - seemingly in any direction - at full speed, rubbing the soft sole of his shoe over the top of the ball, almost like a caress, and never lose control.

"No one could stop him," said Wittman, who scored a lot of goals by running and positioning himself for a pass from Stamenkovic.

"I don't know if it was his size, his ballhandling or his vision. I do know he'd always find you, and I was happy to let him do it."

Stamenkovic was a strong man, able to hold his position in front of the goal or at the far post until he found Wittman or another teammate to receive the perfect pass.

"He was known as `The Magician' because of the way he could also hide the ball," said Cooper. "Almost like a football quarterback faking the handoff and then going the other way. He could roll the ball behind him or sideways, so opposing players couldn't see it, and back-heel it at top speed.

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