Sports Legends museum has Bullets-sized hole in it

Commentary

April 23, 2006|By DAVID STEELE

With the team formerly known as the Baltimore Bullets beginning its latest venture into the NBA playoffs yesterday afternoon, an ideal way to note the occasion would have been to visit the best sports museum in town and soak up a little local hoops history. After all, making the pilgrimage to Sports Legends at Camden Yards for the start of baseball and football season is never a bad call.

But making the trip for basketball reasons would be an empty gesture. The Bullets - Wes, Gus, the Pearl, Gene Shue, Archie Clark, the rivalry with the Knicks, the uniforms with the crazy swoosh stripes - are completely absent from Sports Legends as the museum approaches its first birthday celebration three weeks from today.

It's a fact that slips a lot of people's attention, that such an integral and vibrant part of the city's sports history is not recognized there. But once they're reminded of it, the void becomes very noticeable, particularly in a place that otherwise is a gem.

Phil Wood, the longtime talk-show host who knows the history of pro teams in the Baltimore-Washington region as well as anyone alive, admitted that he hadn't noticed the lack of recognition for the Bullets right away, either. When he did notice, he said last week, he started mentioning it to friends, and then spoke publicly about it Thursday morning while working a substitute shift on WJFK-AM.

The phone lines, as they say, lit up, with fans reaching back three and four decades for memories of the team that left for the D.C. suburbs in 1973 and turned NBA fans here into long-distance commuters.

When callers and others he spoke to were told that those memories are unrecorded at Sports Legends, Wood said, "They all said, `Isn't that odd?' "

"Odd" is the best adjective. It would be unfair to presume negative intent on the part of Michael Gibbons, the executive director who also runs the Babe Ruth Birthplace and Museum, or the Sports Legends staff. Wood said that he spoke to Gibbons after his show aired, and Gibbons told him that he was being deluged with e-mails and calls on the subject, and that "we have something in the works."

That's good news. Not as good news: Next month, a program about the history of the NBA in Baltimore is scheduled to take place ... at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture. Sports Legends would have been a great location as well.

It's likely that gathering Bullets goodies would take a little longer than it did to gather the items on Ruth, the Orioles and the Colts. The museum does have space, though, and it hasn't missed much else. The Ravens, for example, get their due, and they have been in Baltimore the same length of time the Bullets were: 10 years.

And that doesn't even count the previous version of the Bullets, from the late 1940s and early '50s, who won a championship in 1948, before the Orioles or Colts had even shown up in town. That team has more than enough history to fill a room, too, even if you have to be of a certain age or a certain level of fanaticism to know about it.

But that's what museums like this are for.

In fact, the idea doesn't even need a big campaign. It's like trying to come up with an argument for hanging Frank Robinson's or Lenny Moore's jersey in the building. It's natural.

Until it happens, though, it will look "odd" to have not only the Bullets, but also the basketball history of the area missing in an edifice striving to be the ultimate destination for the state's sports legacy. So much else is included. Exhibits there honor lacrosse, tennis, horse racing, indoor soccer, swimming, field hockey and most of the big state schools - including Maryland and its 2002 men's national basketball championship.

Pretty inclusive. It would completely inclusive once they get the Bullets in, both versions - and, as a bonus, something about the legions of great players that have come from here. How about honoring the great Dunbar High teams, and some way overdue recognition of Bob Wade?

As for the Bullets display: Include that early 1970s throwback jersey (and sell a few in the museum store - duh). Feature some shards of glass or a bent rim to commemorate one of Gus Johnson's broken backboards. Do something interactive: Catch an outlet pass from Wes Unseld, compare your hair to Shue's, see if you can curse the loudest about Earl Monroe having been traded. Give visitors directions to 1st Mariner Arena to remind them why the team left, and why no NBA team will ever replace it.

Ideally, Sports Legends is all about memorializing everything that's great in sports in this city, the area and the state, so basketball belongs there.

To start things off, the Bullets belong there. Maybe we'll check in again as the second anniversary approaches.

david.steele@baltsun.com

Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog

Points after -- David Steele

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