NBA returns to Baltimore

Listen to this article

NBA basketball returned to Baltimore on a damp Thursday night, albeit in pre-season form.

Many have forgotten, but long ago, in near antediluvian times (the 1960s and a third of the 1970s), Charm City had a professional team of its own, the Baltimore Bullets.

The Bullets jumped ship for Washington DC. The hoops void forced playgrounds and high schools and colleges to pick up the slack. In almost every way, that slack was demonstrably picked up. Baltimore has produced amazing basketball talent year after year. From the wild children of Hampden who routinely cross me over and drain shots in my face to Muggsy Bogues, the shortest player in NBA history (a Wolverine-esque 5’3”), to the Dunbar High School Dynasty to the reigning scoring champion Carmelo Anthony, Baltimore has done its share and more in contributing to the Game-even without a professional team.

So it was with great anticipation that the long-suffering NBA-less denizens of Baltimore would get to enjoy an honest to goodness NBA (once again pre-season!) game in their hometown. The Knicks and the Wizards faced off at the Baltimore Arena in a meaningless game rife with meaning. I was there to watch it gradually unfurl and to observe a city welcome back a pleasant tall person diversion. This was the same building (then called The Civic Center!) that hosted many of the most cutthroat NBA playoff grudges that ever graced the Eastern Seaboard. This place was rebuilt history begging for a new calamity.

Some  context: The Wizards and Knicks are heading in the same direction, toward the soft middle of the NBA. The Wizards have shed their stable of combustible young talent in favor of more family friendly young talent. Gone are ambitious airhead JaVale McGee, the unconscious Nick Young, and the prima donna powder keg Andray Blatche.

In their place they’ve committed to a dynamic backcourt in budding superstar John Wall and his sharpshooting sidekick Bradley Beal. Management has surrounded them with the most treasured of all NBA roleplayers: character guys. What this means exactly I’m not sure. I take it to mean guys who don’t get into altercations at night clubs and pass the ball before looking for their own shot. The Knicks are a team with the opposite problem. They are beginning that slow and steady decline. They have few players with upside and an incredibly expensive star player. They are getting older. Their rivals are getting better. It is a nervous time to be a Knick fan.

However, the Knicks are merely visitors. The Wizards used to be family, but they absconded long ago.

Basketball has just never held sway over this town. That’s not to say people in Baltimore don’t like basketball. They love it! But basketball just can’t be at the top of that totem pole, not in this town. The Orioles have both the nostalgia card and recently a miniature resurgence that has pumped new enthusiasm into a loyal but moderately browbeaten fanbase. Confucius preached filial devotion above all, but he would have blushed at the rabid love the people of Baltimore hold for the Ravens. It’s the same love that the Colts enjoyed before they were dragged off to Indianapolis.

Earl "The Pearl" Monroe against Walt Fraizer. (Public Domain)
Earl “The Pearl” Monroe against Walt Fraizer. (Public Domain)

These franchises are oversupplied with history and bad blood. The Bullets and the Knicks were rivals the same way Athens and Sparta were rivals. And just as those two bizarre city-states endured the agony of the Peloponnesian War, the Bullets and the Knicks fought a series of brutal playoff mêlées that altered the course of basketball history. These battles featured some of the all-time greats: Wes Unseld, Willis Reed, Walt “Clyde” Frazier, Gus Johnson, and Earl “the Pearl” Monroe (the Alciabades of this tragedy) in their remorseless primes.

In 1970 the Bullets finished with a 50-32 record and drew the New York Knicks in the first round. The Knicks took the first two games, one in New York and the other in Baltimore. Bullets star center Wes Unseld ripped down a ridiculous 34 rebounds in Game 3 as the Bullets prevailed. They won the next game too, tying the series at two games apiece. They then traded off wins and the Knicks simply outlasted the upstart Bullets, winning the series in 7.

The next year Earl the Pearl and the Baltimore Bullets would make good on a promise of revenge and defeat the Knicks en route to the Finals. A lanky sky-hooker still named Lew Alcindor led his Milwaukee Bucks to victory over Baltimore’s finest (basketball team) but hey, at least they had beaten the hated Knicks, right?

But of course nothing gold can stay, and when Earl Monroe demanded a trade from Baltimore, there simply was no other possible destination than New York. Tragedy demands it. The Knicks would go on to pulverize the Bullets the following year in the playoffs and the year after that. Diminishing returns forced Abe Pollin’s hand. The arena was not up to the standards of the NBA and attendance had been steadily declining throughout the years. The effects of crime and white flight can only be approximated, but Baltimore couldn’t keep the Bullets from bolting to Landover and eventually to Washington. But Baltimore still had the Orioles. They still had the Colts. They would survive without their basketball team.

But now, thanks to something called the Baltimore Basketball Classic, Baltimore basketball enthusiasts were treated to an exciting if slapdash contest between former rivals, featuring players who weren’t even born during the epic slugfests of yesteryear. The main draw of this game was strangely not the former Bullets (renamed the Wizards because Wizards don’t kill people) but the other team’s star, Baltimore’s own: Carmelo Kyam Anthony.

Carmello returns home. (Wikipedia Commons)
Carmello returns home. (Wikipedia Commons)

This wasn’t just the return of the prodigal son. This was the very first time he’s been able to play professionally in front of his beloved hometown and he didn’t disappoint.

I’m like Richard Dawkins when it comes to Carmelo. I have spent many years attempting to convince whatever sucker in earshot that Carmelo Anthony is a paper tiger in a headband, an inefficient chucker par excellence that didn’t deserve to have his name uttered in the same breath as LeBron or Kevin Durant.

Watching him in person is a completely different experience. I won’t go so far as to say I’ve had my hardwood Damascene conversion in regards to Melo, but what the dude can do is worthy of praise, and I salute him for being exceedingly good at putting the ball into the hoop. Dude is excellent at that, and in a game that felt at times one step above a charity event, watching the giants among the giants go to work is a pleasure to behold. Hoops nerds extol the virtues of the extra pass and the crisp rotation and the efficient well-rounded player, but guys like Carmelo are what pack the house night in and night out. We pay to watch Gods, not comptrollers.

And the people love him.

The Wizards had only the slimmest of home court advantages with this crowd as Carmelo was cheered near every time he touched the ball. A true hometown hero, Melo is the almost certainly the sole reason half the arena seemed to be bedecked in Knickerbocker garb. I asked a fellow with gold teeth who he was rooting for and he said, “Knicks of course. Cause of Melo!”

There’s no doubt in my mind that this would have been a common answer. The lusty applause was saved for him and him alone. It doesn’t help that the “home” team happens to be DC. The Baltimore Bullets are the forefathers of these Washington Wizards, but the relationship between DC and Baltimore has ever been a complicated one, and indeed, it is often described with words a deal more antagonistic than “complicated”. It’s interesting to think that even with the shared history and the geographic proximity that it would be assumed that Baltimoreans would instinctively root for the neighboring town (the neighboring town that happens to look down on them) that stole their team!

Of course, Carmelo wasn’t the only one coming home. Sam Cassell, who played for no less than nine NBA teams in his career, is now an assistant coach for the Wizards. In the mysterious room where free food is served for people with press passes, he beseeches everyone not to give up on the Ravens as he gets more salad. I chew on my pasta and think about telling Sam that he was a great player and always seemed like a nice guy. I also might tell him that my dad and I always used to say he looked vaguely like an alien. He looks less like an alien up close. He just looks like a sleek dude with no hair. Sam poses for photos with the catering staff. He seems pleasant as hell.

siI prefer the free food room to the media room. The media room was full of serious young men hunched over their laptops. There were few seats, so I sat by myself. Walt Frazier (now a TV personality for the Knicks) also had a table all to himself. He wore a somehow elegant orange suit and concrete clacking boots that looked to be made from a tan alligator. He seemed to be doodling or preparing remarks for the game.

Every now and then he grinned at something on the pages he scribbled at. I may have stared. I just imagined what my dad would say if I told him I was sitting across from Walt Frazier but that I was covered in cat hair and wearing a stupid hat with a rooster on it. He’d be confused, at the very least.

I wandered the lower levels of the empty arena, trying to feel out its history and trying to get away from the boys club of the local press. The staff bustled around me and I thought about Earl the Pearl and how he brazenly switched sides, how a person could turn their coat so easily. This was supposed to be an era of honor and “love of the game”. It’s supposed to be some far cry from the Dwight Howard induced trade-demand nightmares of today. People are people. Even the old timers. Even the greats!

The game itself was boilerplate pre-season. Sloppy and fun, like a summer fling, but also depressing and long. The seats are slow to fill. The Knicks are introduced to great applause and they embark on a buoyant layup line. Andrea Bargnani, whom the Knicks just acquired this summer, looks like a seven foot tall Nick Sobotka. I see Ray Felton swishing jumpers and looking less fat than I imagined he’d be. The Wizards get an applause perhaps slightly louder than the visiting team, but it is hard to be sure, as the classic basketball fight song “Mambo #5” is blasting and I’m reeling from the news that several prominent Knicks (J.R. Smith, Kenyon Martin, Metta World Peace) didn’t even bother to make the trip.

The game begins and the atmosphere is akin to a mid season baseball game. People are chatting, laughing, half watching the game. It’s altogether very pleasant. Felton swishes a three. The enigmatic Frenchman Kevin Seraphin hits a floater over the redoubtable defensive stalwart Tyson Chandler. Bargnani bumbles his way through the lane and misses a layup.Later he yells at a teammate for not passing to him. Bradley Beal’s shot looks good. He makes a corner three with samurai like poise. We learn Ray Rice is in the building.

Hefty applause.

We learn Mike Riordan is in the building.

Confused applause.

Gee Whiz is a gross mascot. John Wall looks like he just got paid and is ready to own the hope and the hype that goes along with that. His playmaking ability has skyrocketed. He is the best player on the Wizards and that is not exactly breaking news. He doesn’t seem like the same hastily loaded buckshot he was his first few years in the league. He seems like a refined Gatling gun now, but one that is particularly adept at passing. He hits a jumper to beat the shot clock with something like seven seconds left before halftime. Of course Carmelo makes the last shot. Carmelo won’t be upstaged in Baltimore.

The Wizards lose in large part because their bench played a subpar game, even for their standards. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that there is NBA basketball in Baltimore again. Even if it is just once a year.








One thought on “NBA returns to Baltimore

  • October 18, 2013 at 10:24 PM

    Mike Riordan was not only a great Bullet when they played in Baltimore but he was also a key reserve and fan favorite of the Knicks 1970 championship team. Long-time and die-hard fans clapping were not confused, only people not familiar with history and what was once a great rivalry.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.