There's no room for repeat of sold-out city boys final

ON HIGH SCHOOLS

The Kickoff

February 28, 2006|By MILTON KENT

The hottest ticket around town last week was to Wednesday's Southwestern-Walbrook boys city championship basketball game. Dennis Randall had one, and he still couldn't get in to see it.

Randall said he bought his ticket two days early and his brother-in-law and nephew showed up at Northwestern, the site of the title game, at 5 p.m., an hour before tipoff. Yet Randall and quite a few other city high school hoop fans were stopped at the front door and barred from going in because too many people were already inside waiting to watch the Sabers and Warriors go at it.

"If you buy a ticket, you expect to get in," Randall said. "If we'd known someone, maybe we would have gotten in."

Or probably not. The game was caught in a kind of perfect storm: a meeting between two highly ranked teams, played at a facility that was too small to keep pace with the interest. And, under the circumstances, there really was nothing that anyone could do about it, even with published warnings that fans needed to arrive early.

Bob Wade, the city schools' athletic director, said he had hoped to play the title game at Morgan State or Coppin State, but both schools asked for at least $3,600 in rent, a figure that the strapped school system would be hard-pressed to come up with, especially with tickets going for just $5. The next option was the gym at Baltimore City Community College, but Wade said the game couldn't be scheduled around the practice times of one of BCCC's teams.

Once the college arenas were ruled out, Wade said he tried to stage the game on the west side of town, considering that both schools are located in West Baltimore. The trick, then, was to find a high school gym large enough to accommodate fans of the two teams, as well as Lake Clifton and Northwestern, whose teams met in the junior varsity title game.

Northwestern became the choice, and school officials said they could hold 800 fans, Wade said. Each of the four schools were given 100 tickets to sell, and 215 were kept for sale at the door. Wade said they began selling tickets at the door at 4:10, about 40 minutes after school dismissed.

In reality, only 600 fans were allowed in by the state fire marshal's office, and city police helped to disperse the overflow crowd. Wade said officials did not oversell the gym, but a number of people still were unable to get into the building, thanks in no small measure to the fact that many fans came to watch the JV game just to ensure that they had a seat for the Walbrook-Southwestern game.

Wade said the school system will refund all valid tickets at school system headquarters at North Avenue.

Here's an idea: Perhaps city and Baltimore County officials should consider the possibility of staging a championship game doubleheader with the sites to rotate among college gyms in the county (Towson, UMBC) and the city (Loyola, Morgan and Coppin). And the colleges should, as a show of good faith toward the respective school systems, consider dropping their rent for such a doubleheader and consider that they'll be getting concession revenue on a night when the buildings would otherwise be dark.

By now, everyone has basked in the glow of the wonderful story of Jason McElwain, the autistic Greece Athena (N.Y.) high school senior who got into a basketball game last week for the first time, hitting six three-pointers and scoring 20 points in about four minutes.

And while McElwain's perseverance and bravery are to be saluted, the other hero in this setting is his coach, Jim Johnson, who walked a very fine line in letting his manager suit up and play.

Coaches, by nature, are creatures of habit and, especially, of control. Any number of variables could have come into play when McElwain, whose father told CBS he was concerned that his son would draw a technical while on the bench because of his enthusiasm, took the court.

The worst of those possibilities, beyond McElwain or anyone else getting injured, was that the situation could have been patronizing for the young man.

Every competitor, from the lowest recreation league to the highest level of professional struggle, owes it to teammates, the opposition and to the game itself to give it maximum effort, and the natural tendency would have been to take it easy on McElwain or to demean him by letting him score.

Yet, from all outward appearances, McElwain's feats were genuinely achieved. Better yet, his teammates and the fans, who wore masks with his face, treated him with respect and honor, which, in the end, is all any athlete can ask for.

milton.kent@baltsun.com

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