On sports' world stage in Greece, Baltimore is no bit player


August 31, 2004|By LAURA VECSEY

ATHENS - So I fly from Baltimore 5,000 miles to Athens, trundle another 180 miles by bus to Olympia to watch the Olympics return to its birthplace, and what do I find?

A Baltimore angle.

A Baltimore story good enough to upstage the shot put - a once-in-a-lifetime event in the most hallowed grounds, considering that Olympia is where sports was born.

Besides Baltimore, that is.

Baltimore tends to pride itself as the center of the sports universe. Babe Ruth, Johnny Unitas, Cal Ripken - there are only one or two degrees of separation between Baltimore and every important sports story in America.

Some of us itinerant workers who are newcomers to Baltimore sometimes rolled our eyes at the quasi-provincialism with which Baltimore views itself as Sportstown USA.

What fools are we!

In one trip to ancient Greece, I realized Baltimore is correct. It really is the center of the sports universe.

See, in ancient Olympia, me, Mike Wise (The Washington Post) and Bryan Burwell (St. Louis Post-Dispatch) wandered around the grounds at Olympia. We ran into a very nice young man, there to watch his girlfriend compete in the shot put.

After striking up a conversation, it turns out the young man's name is Balvin Brown Jr., and he's a pharmaceutical salesman who lives in Owings Mills.

Burwell and Wise look at me, roll their eyes, decide I'm the luckiest one in Greece, because I have what you call a local angle to my Olympia story. But that was only the start.

It turns out that Balvin, 25, was a two-time All-Metro selection, then went to UMBC, where he threw discus. He met his girlfriend, Cleopatra Borel, at a track meet at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, when she was competing for Coppin State.

Borel transferred to UMBC, where she continued to train and compete in the shot put. She made the Olympic team of her native country, Trinidad.

As it turned out, Cleopatra was not only Brown's girlfriend, but she also had just become Balvin Brown's fiancee.

He proposed! In Olympia! Twenty-eight hundred years after the Games were invented in Olympia! Right after she was among the first women ever allowed to compete at Olympia!

The gods were smiling down on me.

They never stopped, either.

My Sun colleague, Paul McMullen - Baltimore-born and bred - was at the epicenter of the Michael Phelps show for the first eight days of the Games.

Every time Phelps swam, reporters from papers and magazines all over the United States and the world would rush to the mixed zone. There, we'd crowd along the fence, which is the Olympic way of trying to interview athletes as they pass between the pool or court to the locker room.

Well, talk about parting the Red Sea. Every time the press needed comments from Phelps or his North Baltimore Aquatic Club coach, Bob Bowman, the world's media would make room and usher Paul to the front of the pack.

Everyone understood that if the media horde stuck Paul under the noses of Phelps and/or Bowman, the entire media contingent might have a better crack at obtaining a few good post-race quotes.

Go, Paul!

(Paul is also the track expert. He told me that Bernard Williams, the Baltimore sprinter whose positive drug test for marijuana kept him off the 400-meter relay squad, was the reason the U.S. team lost that relay to Britain.

The baton pass between the second and third legs was muffed enough to take the U.S. team off the pace. Paul said that the Americans had not lost that relay until Friday night, when Williams was not included in the U.S. relay squad.)

As for Phelps:

Sometimes it bothered me when I realized that many international journalists merely identified Phelps as a U.S. swimmer, not Baltimore's own.

What a slight! Still, with eight medals, six of them gold, these were the Michael Phelps Olympics. By 2008, when Phelps is in his prime - imagine that! - maybe the world will be ready to make the important distinction. He's not just from the U.S. He's from Rodgers Forge, people!

I will say that there were several Greek journalists who were eager to take my North Baltimore Aquatic Club T-shirt off my hands, or back, as the case may be. No way did I give it up.

I even wore the NBAC shirt one night when I went to see the U.S. men's basketball team play Lithuania.

My main mission was to write a story about Carmelo Anthony, the most miserable member of Larry Brown's squad. Another Baltimore angle, folks.

Anthony had gone from NCAA champ to NBA playoff contender to pine rider. Good story, particularly since 'Melo had once promised gold for the U.S. team on late-night TV, then had to rescind that guarantee after it was clear the Americans were getting spanked.

Well, by the time the game ended, with 'Melo getting a few minutes and doing OK, that story was no longer that interesting.

Never fear, Baltimore-angle seekers. It turned out that the Lithuanian guard who shot the lights out and buried the U.S. was none other than a former University of Maryland guard.

Sarunas Jasikevicius spent four years with Gary Williams, finally earning a starting spot between the comings and goings of Keith Booth and Steve Francis and Juan Dixon. He thought about leaving the Terps, but stuck it out. He was good enough for some NBA scouts to think he'd be a draft pick, but he never made it.

No wonder he was beaming that night at Helliniko, where he outshot Stephon Marbury and Tim Duncan, two guys he played against in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

"I guess I'm just a slow, fat, white guy," Jasikevicius said, smirking.

Maybe the Wizards will call and offer a contract now.

One thing these Olympics taught me:

It's a small-timore world after all.

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