Getting basketball off bench at museum

October 04, 2007|By DAVID STEELE

About a year ago, Bob Wade took a tour of the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards along with other state high school athletic administrators who were in the facility for a meeting. Wade, the legendary former football and basketball coach at Dunbar, had an idea what to expect - and what not to expect.

"People who had taken the tour had told me there was hardly any basketball in there. Not just the professionals and the colleges, but no mention of Dunbar ... or any of the rich history of high school basketball," Wade, now the city schools' athletics director, said this week. "When I went through there, I saw what people were talking about."

Those who visit the museum Saturday and Sunday, though, will see what Wade and other hoops-loving patrons have been missing for the two years Sports Legends has been open. As part of the Free Fall Baltimore program (key word: free) this month at the city's arts and culture sites, the museum hosts "Celebrating Basketball in Baltimore" with two days of clinics, activities, personal appearances and panel discussions.

It will encompass every aspect of the game that is easily as near and dear to the hearts of Baltimoreans and Marylanders as football, baseball and lacrosse, if not more so. It will include a tribute to coaching, officiating and broadcasting legend Charley Eckman, and recollections of the original Bullets (represented by 82-year-old Walt Budko, from the 1948-1951 teams) and the next reincarnation (Phil Chenier and Mike Riordan, from the last team to play here before moving to Landover). Moderating Sunday's panel on high school basketball? Bob Wade.

It will bring Sports Legends closer to being complete.

But not all the way.

Museum director Michael Gibbons still wants to put together a full basketball exhibit, which, he acknowledges, remains the most glaring absence in the complex. Gibbons has heard the voice of the masses - the polite observations and the loud complaints - and is more than sympathetic. A huge fan himself, he yearns to have the sport take its place alongside the others that define the city and the state.

But, he also has acknowledged, his hands are tied. The items on display for the Orioles, Colts, Ravens and the other entities were readily available or eagerly donated (by his widow, in the case of the Johnny Unitas memorabilia). There has been no such outpouring of items ready to exhibit for basketball - particularly for the Bullets, whose departure to Washington in 1973 has left the city devoid of pro basketball for nearly three times as long as the 12 years the NFL was away.

You can learn more about Abraham Lincoln there (because of the role the old Camden train station played in the Civil War) than about Earl Monroe.

They've got plenty of space available for the future enshrinement of basketball at every level. Yet two years of attempts to draw donations have met with little success, said Dave Fischvogt, the museum's director of education and coordinator of the weekend event.

Grant money from the Free Fall Baltimore program gave Sports Legends an opening to squeeze basketball onto the main stage.

"We wanted to select something we don't ordinarily have, and that's basketball," Fischvogt said. "So many people come into the museum and want to know about the Baltimore Bullets.

"Hopefully, this will generate enough interest in it that if someone has items and artifacts they want to donate, we'd be happy to accept them."

The NBA is sending along what it has from both Bullets teams, including archival footage. Older fans have contacted the museum in the past year saying they have items such as programs, tickets and banners, but in small numbers. Meanwhile, museum officials hope to spread the word that anything from the local colleges and all of the state's high schools is just as welcome.

Without it, the chasm left by the absence of basketball - exacerbated elsewhere downtown by the continued decrepit presence of the former Civic Center - will only become more obvious, in more ways than just the empty rooms in the museum.

"The younger kids think the Wizards originated in Washington," Wade said, referring to the franchise the Bullets eventually became when they left Maryland in 1997.

"I applaud Dave for his foresight."

Fischvogt, Gibbons and the others at Sports Legends should be applauded. The official oversight of basketball in the city, as evidenced by the void in the museum and the shortsightedness of those planning to someday replace the old arena, is inexplicable. It leaves the impression that this sport, with its vital and historic link to the community, is valued far less than baseball and football.

Building an adequate arena is apparently a lost cause. Creating a fitting tribute to basketball in the city's tourist magnet of a sports museum seems easy by comparison. Putting on a celebration of the city game this weekend should make it even easier.

david.steele@baltsun.com

David Steele blogs on the sorry state of the New York Knicks at baltsun.com/steelepress

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