Wizards still hold direct link to Baltimore

November 23, 2005|By DAVID STEELE

Washington -- MCI Center could easily have been mistaken for Denver's Pepsi Center last night, there were so many powder-blue Nuggets jerseys in the stands.

Either that, or Washington's NBA franchise could've been mistaken for Baltimore's, there were so many fans from the Wizards' former home in the building.

Whatever the case, it was another testament to the role Baltimore still plays in the fortunes of the team that left town 32 years ago. Under the right circumstances, the city can still make its presence known in the NBA - even though the Wizards' presence in Baltimore practically doesn't exist.

The city's favorite hoops son, Carmelo Anthony, was coming in, but there was no ad in yesterday's Sun, no commercial on local radio or television (besides the ones on the team's flagship, Comcast SportsNet), and no radio station carrying the game.

With some exceptions over the years, this has been largely the case since 1997, when the Wizards cemented the bond with the city whose name they carried and moved to their new arena in downtown D.C. That move also marked the last time they would play in the city, after nine seasons of scheduling at least three regular-season games a year in what is now 1st Mariner Arena.

Still, for his third visit as a pro to Washington, Anthony got tickets for dozens of Baltimore family, friends and fans. Hundreds of others came on their own, decked out in his jersey, still among the top sellers in the entire league thanks largely to his supporters in a city without a franchise of its own.

It continued the trend noted by Wizards president Susan O'Malley at the home opener three weekends ago: When their hometown stars visit, Baltimore turns out big. "Baltimore is a basketball hotbed, there's no question about it," she said. "You get people like Carmelo Anthony and Juan Dixon in the NBA, and there's an interest in the NBA because of that. So we continue to draw."

Not only does O'Malley claim that 20 percent of the crowd each night comes from the Baltimore area, there are still season-ticket holders who never gave up their seats when Abe Pollin took the team from the then-Civic Center to Landover in 1973. Several of that loyal breed were among a group of longtime ticket-buyers honored at the home opener.

It hasn't hurt that the team finally became a contender last season for the first time in nearly a decade. "Winning opens doors," O'Malley said.

The game's draw in Baltimore is obvious from the way Anthony's jerseys and shoes fly off the shelves and adorn kids in every neighborhood in the area. Next most popular - much less so than Anthony's, but in far greater numbers than any other team or individual - are Wizards jerseys. Dixon's still fill the racks, even though he's now playing in Portland and his number given to Caron Butler. (Dixon, by the way, comes to town next week, assuring another convoy of fans down the B-W Parkway.)

The hardest of those Wizards jerseys to keep in stock are the orange Bullets throwbacks from the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Earl Monroe era, introduced last season. Anytime Anthony is not at MCI Center, the jersey seen the most is the throwback.

"We order them," said a storeowner in Baltimore County earlier this month, "and we sell 'em out fast, and we just keep ordering them. We're waiting on an order now. They love 'em."

So Baltimore digs the NBA, and supports the Wizards, even though it was the first big-league team to abandon the city, a decade before the Colts. While the NFL and baseball are now represented in both cities, the Wizards still serve a dual fan base.

They serve their home city far better - which is hardly a surprise, or even anything to get mad about, with the investment D.C. and the Wizards made in each other. Marketing, advertising and community service are now focused almost solely on Washington.

So is the radio broadcasting. The D.C. flagship station fades somewhere in Columbia, and the closest affiliate is in Annapolis. "We're desperate for an outlet up there," O'Malley said. "We're in Annapolis, so we know we're drawing up in that area. We keep making overtures. We can't crack Baltimore."

Besides such overtures for a radio affiliate, there also is talk every year about playing a preseason game in Baltimore, and the Wizards are hinting around about it again for next year. It's hard to imagine the game not drawing big, regardless of where it would be played, even at the old Arena. It's all but a sure bet that it will tap into a market waiting to be catered to.

But it hasn't happened yet. It still takes a long drive for fans of Anthony, the Wizards and the NBA to feed their habit. The bonds seem weaker every year, but they haven't broken.

david.steele@baltsun.com

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