Stop Dropping Ball On City's Basketball Legacy

April 19, 2009|By David Steele | David Steele,david.steele@baltsun.com

Every time a city basketball legend like Marvin Webster passes away, the void screams louder. Where is Baltimore basketball's place of honor? Where do the sport's versions of Johnny Unitas and Cal Ripken Jr. go to be immortalized?

As Webster's friends, family, teammates and coaches said goodbye to him last week, they pondered those questions, and of course had no answer. They believe their sport is as close to the heart of Charm City as football and baseball - that, in fact, while the individual teams in other sports are revered in Baltimore and throughout Maryland, basketball stakes a much greater claim.

Yet in comparison, basketball is practically neglected - until tragedy strikes one of its stars.

"Yeah, it would be something, to be able to hang this someplace special," said Webster's brother, the Rev. Steve Webster, who was carrying Marvin's framed Morgan State jersey from a Randallstown funeral home the day before his funeral.

Michael Gibbons agrees. The executive director of the Sports Legends at Camden Yards museum continues his quest to add a full-time basketball exhibit to those honoring the old Colts and Orioles, and the Ravens. Gibbons has been trying for two years to acquire enough memorabilia from both versions of the Baltimore Bullets to anchor such an exhibit. Last summer, Carmelo Anthony donated several items to an exhibit honoring his presence on the Olympic gold-medal team in Beijing.

Besides those, individual salutes to the national champion men's and women's teams at Maryland, and special programs at the museum, the basketball cupboard is bare.

Webster's death two weeks ago, at age 56, struck the same nerve with Gibbons as it did with everybody close to the basketball scene in Baltimore. "Ah, the Eraser," Gibbons sighed, invoking Webster's famous nickname. "We would love to get stuff in here from the Human Eraser."

But that's as problematic as every other attempt to build up the collection - the cost of such expansion in these economic times, the difficulty in gathering memorabilia and the fact that the pro game left town 36 years ago.

"There's no team, no current team. So it's diffuse. It's complicated in different ways," Gibbons said.

The responsibility for such a project, of course, hardly lands solely on Sports Legends - it's just the most visible and most successful sports museum in town. There isn't any entity in the city or state putting basketball, or its legendary players and personalities, on the type of pedestal on which the Colts, Ravens and Orioles sit. Considering that two Baltimore schools won national championships in the 1970s - Webster's Morgan team in NCAA Division II and Coppin State in the NAIA - and the steady flow of talent produced in the past 40 years, that's inexcusable.

The talk among the men who were contemporaries of Webster's at Edmondson High and Morgan State in the 1970s, who attended Webster's wakes and funeral, tells you the time has come. Several gather monthly in an informal group that calls itself "One Baltimore." Figuring out how to keep the memories of the great names before and after them alive is always part of the discussion, and it was again Friday outside Greater New Hope Baptist Church, down the street from Coppin State, as Webster was being eulogized.

As unpleasant as it is to suggest it, Webster's coach at Morgan, Nat Frazier - so emotional as he spoke over his former player's casket Friday - isn't getting any younger.

Honoring the greats while they are still alive - an opportunity missed with Webster - should be motivation enough for anybody to move the process along. It doesn't matter anymore whether the big museum near the ballparks does it or whether it happens elsewhere. As long as it is planned out someplace besides a funeral.

Listen to David Steele on Mondays from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. and Thursdays at 9:30 a.m. on Fox Sports 1370 AM.

points after

* It's probably just a coincidence that John Madden retired not long after Brett Favre did.

* The more you see contrived events like the schedule-announcement special, the easier it is to pick a side in the cable companies vs. NFL Network dispute. Go, cable companies.

* Not to rain on Gary Sheffield's parade, but he is the fifth member of the 500-home run club to be tied to performance-enhancing drugs. Six, if you count Manny Ramirez, and Jose Canseco counts him (or at least suspects him), and Canseco hasn't been wrong yet.

* Then again, three members accomplished the feat during the segregation era, so the list was never that pure to begin with.

* The NBA playoffs are going to drag on from now until the end of eternity, and I'll do everything in my power not to miss a second of them.

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