"If Buffalo can host the NCAAs, why can't Baltimore?"
With no disrespect intended to the hosts of the first- and second-round games of the men's basketball tournament last weekend - and that disclaimer was repeated in all sincerity by the aforementioned audience - the only thing Buffalo's downtown area has that Baltimore doesn't is an arena.
Of course, we're back where we were a year ago, in the middle of March Madness and smacked in the face by tournament action that swerves around Baltimore and lands seemingly everywhere else. Last March it was Philadelphia's Wachovia Center and Verizon Center in downtown Washington.
This time, Maryland and seven other schools traveled to drab, bone-chilling Buffalo, thin on top-notch hotels and nearby amenities but packed for four days with visitors who were more than willing to add vibrancy to the landscape, dollars to the local economy and buzz to the city's intangibles.
Nothing there compared to the Inner Harbor. But nothing here compares to HSBC, which drew crowds of nearly 19,000 for most of the six games. Certainly not the venerable (a better adjective than "crusty") 1st Mariner Arena, now 45 years old and 34 years removed from its last real basketball glory days, when the Bullets pulled out for Landover. This place outlasted the Capital Centre, and that's not a compliment.
This time last year, as well, a feasibility study for a downtown arena was in the works, commissioned by the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore and the stadium commission arm of the Maryland Stadium Authority. That study is now complete, and it is being circulated to city and state officials. Proponents of the arena are staying mum on the report's details until the reaction from politicians can be gauged.
A presumed plus in their column: Martin O'Malley, former mayor of B'more, is in the governor's chair now.
The final word would come from the politicos, and news of any kind about it likely won't come any earlier than the summer, if then. The study simply breaks down for them the costs and benefits, potential locations, and how much work, time and resources would be needed to add a venue that could host basketball, concerts, circuses, conventions and other indoor events to the baseball and football stadiums that anchor downtown.
The void left by the absence of a strong basketball presence in a definite basketball town is even more obvious at this time of year, when the game is king everywhere but here.
1st Mariner's management company, SMC, still works miracles to bring events to the building. But imagine what it might bring with a dramatically upgraded facility as a lure.
Imagine a building in the state's marquee city hosting the boys and girls high school basketball championships, or the private school championships, or both. The occasional Maryland men's and women's game (the area has enriched those programs with a little talent over the years). Games featuring the other area schools ---Towson, Morgan, Coppin, Loyola, UMBC, even all of them at once in an annual tournament.
Plus, all-star charity games featuring pros and celebrities - last summer, Carmelo Anthony and Sam Cassell both envisioned such a game someday, even at 1st Mariner. ' summer event is spread everywhere from Martin's West to the Hippodrome, so why not to a state-of-the-art downtown spot?
That's not even to mention other sports, like indoor soccer - that brings Blast and 1st Mariner owner Ed Hale into the picture, and he still has property in Canton that works as a possible location. Or indoor lacrosse, or arena football. Or ice skating. Someone from around here is a pretty good figure skater, Kimmie something.
Or the NCAA tournament, in regular rotation. Buffalo hosted games this month for the third time in eight years. Certainly a mid-major conference represented in the area would jump at placing its tournament here as much as it does for Richmond, Hartford or Raleigh.
And if you want to dream big ... NCAA regionals and the Final Four. Or the ACC tournament. If you're into really wild fantasies, an NBA team.
That would take a building capacity whose cost would outstrip the benefits the city would get from it - and Wizards owner Abe Pollin would lie down in front of the buses bringing a team to town before he'd allow competition that close. It's a pipe dream.
Too bad, because NBA teams have hardly stopped shopping themselves around. The Nets will be in Brooklyn in a couple of years. Some team is going to wind up full-time in Oklahoma City eventually. Probably Kansas City, too, because a downtown arena is under construction now. And Las Vegas is just a matter of time.
Baltimore would get bypassed again.
It's a real relief to know that people in power in the city and state are taking this seriously. They recognize that the city that knew it deserved to keep the Orioles and to have the NFL back also deserves a venue for basketball that it can be proud of.
Here's to finally filling that void, and to someday filling this downtown area with basketball fans, instead of D.C.'s, or Philly's - or Buffalo's.
Read David Steele's blog at baltimoresun.com/steeleblog.