MSA gives traveling NBA fans little hope


October 22, 2004|By DAVID STEELE

VERY QUIETLY, under the cover of the Ravens, the baseball playoffs and the usual October confluence of sports, the Maryland Stadium Authority last week snipped away ever so slightly at what's left of the ties between Baltimore and pro basketball.

It wasn't their intention to do so. It sure was the result, though.

They had every sound, logical reason to recommend that the proposed downtown arena (which would replace, finally, the Arena Formerly Known as the Civic Center) seat fewer than the required capacity for an NBA or NHL building. But this is what happens when you inject sound, logical reason into a sports argument: You stir up emotions, passion and nostalgia.

They probably didn't mean to do that, either. The wild idea of luring an NBA team here, even on a limited basis - the way it was a decade ago, before the soon-to-be Wizards divorced from Maryland for good - is just that, a wild idea.

But it's one that at least would revive a sport that ought to feel completely left out in the madness over the local NFL and Major League Baseball franchises.

Makes you wonder, amid the talk of rivalries between Baltimore and D.C. teams in those sports, with all the moving and building and luring and suing and threatening and debating involved in determining the upper hand in the metropolitan area, why no one ever talks about pro basketball.

The idea of having a building big enough to house a team was dismissed practically out of hand. The owner of the Blast and of the current naming rights, Ed Hale, has been the lone voice of dissent. He hasn't been shouted down as much as tuned out.

The MSA said, essentially, that Baltimore is done with big sports buildings for now.

Maybe, then, it's just bad timing. Anyone who might have thought a new NBA-ready arena was a good idea here showed up late to the party. Since Camden Yards went up, the sports landscape from here to College Park to downtown D.C. has been totally remade.

What's left of this area's NBA lovers - whether loyal to Gus and the Pearl or to the teams that populated the Cap Centre, or the current ex-Bullets - got left behind. And now, they're being put even further behind.

In light of all that, you can see why the MSA is going in this direction. Yes, that decrepit building has to be replaced. But no, not by MCI North, or whatever would be able to make the place big league. The building wouldn't be able to compete, nor would the city. So they're backing off and scaling down.

Bad idea, Hale countered last week, to "blow the chance" for a team ever coming here, to save money today, hold down capacity and nix the big-league amenities.

It's hard to imagine that no one would want the NBA around here. When the Bullets were putting four games in the same broken-down joint in the late 1980s and '90s, they packed the place. The Wizards know this area represents a notable segment of their fan base, one that makes the trip south the way baseball fans made the trip north over nearly the same 30-year time period starting in the early '70s.

But the moment MCI went up, the trips to Baltimore ceased.

Too bad. Even just four dates a year here would be sweet, if only for the promise of Throwback Nights.

It'd be sweet, that is, if they had a decent place to play.

The MSA says it's not putting up an expensive arena without a team ready to move in. Hale counters with the notion that a new arena would lure a team.

The MSA knows no one is signed up, or even looking. Hale surely notices that two NBA franchises have relocated in the past three years, and that a third, the New Jersey Nets, has tentatively agreed to move to an as-yet-undeveloped Brooklyn site.

To reiterate: tentative, as-yet-undeveloped. It's not as if a free-agent team looking for a new home down the line is out of the question.

Of course, if anyone tried to move into a new NBA-quality downtown Baltimore arena, Abe Pollin's reaction likely would make Peter Angelos sit up and take notes. (How Ted Leonsis, current minority partner and owner-in-waiting, feels isn't defined.) But if David Stern finds himself in Bud Selig's shoes, with a team with no place to go and a building and city ready to embrace it, who knows?

Yeah, this is industrial-strength pipe-dreaming going on here. But it's fueled by the sneaking suspicion that while the Ravens and Orioles form the muscle and skeleton of sports fandom here, underneath it beats the heart of a basketball town.

Hale suspects the same thing, and he's probably not alone. The MSA, however, isn't convinced.

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