If you’re a basketball fan, you’re probably a little bummed as summer stretches toward fall. Unless there’s some serious concessions, some legitimate efforts at mediating a messy labor dispute, NBA players will continue to be locked out and the 2011-12 season remains in jeopardy. Having just dealt with this situation in the NFL, we know how frustrating and maddening it can be to see a sport, its fans and its players twisting in the wind as legal eagles ply their trade in an effort to mediate the dispute.
Back in the day, Baltimore basketball fans had more roundball than they could shake a referee’s whistle at. And I’m not just talking about the Bullets, who made winters at the Baltimore Civic Center magical before hightailing it to Abe Pollin’s spanking new Capital Centre in 1973. (By the way, did you know that the Bullets were not named for a type of ammunition? Instead, the original American Basketball League/Basketball Association of America/National Basketball League versions, from 1947-1954, drew their moniker from the Bata Bullet, a popular athletic shoe manufactured in the company’s Harford County plant.)
But back to hoops, and the connection to your favorite baseball team. From the 1960s through the mid-1980s, the Orioles fielded a wintertime basketball squad. Stars like Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer, Paul Blair and Cal Ripken Jr. donned short shorts, tanks and warmups sponsored by Tasty Kake and took to the hardwood. So did guys like Don Baylor (who used his bulk to set some ferocious picks), Tommy Shopay (who was a mite on the court) and Dick Hall (whose 6-foot-6 frame came in handy on the boards).
They played a regular schedule of fundraising games - in spartan rec centers, church halls, school gyms and even a few larger venues, like Capital Centre or the UMBC Field House. They competed against school faculty teams, radio station teams (the WCAO Good Guys stand out in my mind) or other barnstorming hoopsters to raise funds for a plethora of charities in and around the Baltimore metropolitan area.
The players who made Baltimore their offseason homes were constants. Other players joined in throughout the winter, when their travels brought them to Charm City - for appearances, contract negotiations or team functions. When the O’s team was a player or two short, members of the organization’s front office ably filled in. I remember watching a guy named Tom Jasper, who worked in the team’s ticket office, shooting the rock better than the name players during a game at UMBC in the 1970s. Longtime athletic trainer Ralph Salvon was often on the bench.
It was all good fun, and very competitive - definitely not like the Washington Generals/Harlem Globetrotters non-contests whose outcomes were as scripted as professional wrestling. Some of the games went right down to the final buzzer, and the Orioles always seemed to win more than they lost.
And there was always ample time for autographs. Even the most popular players - future Hall of Famers like Robinson and Palmer - made sure no fan left without a signature. Aside from the Tops in Sports Banquet each January (a Monday Memory for another week), the Orioles basketball schedule was probably the easiest way to get signatures and chat up your favorite ballplayers.
By the time major league organizations started writing tougher contract language to protect their sizable investments in players, the tradition waned. Ripken, for example, used his own basketball court for offseason conditioning. But the local basketball courts that became the Orioles’ wintertime roost to the delight of fans, were a little emptier - just like the Civic Center vacated by the Bullets.
Top photo: Jim Palmer shoots over one of the WCAO Good Guys during a game in the 1970s. Bottom photo: Former O’s outfielder Merv Rettenmund drives the lane during a charity game in the 1970s. Thanks to Bill Stetka, Orioles outreach and development director, for his assistance in researching through the team’s photo archives.