Baltimore basketball fans got a taste of something old and something new Thursday as the city hosted an NBA game for the first time since 1999.
The star attraction was Baltimore native Carmelo Anthony, playing professionally in his hometown for the first time ever.
The New York Knicks forward is one of the biggest names in the NBA, and his homecoming brought extra juice to what could've been just another preseason contest against the Washington Wizards.
So did the presence of former Baltimore Bullets and Knicks greats revisiting Baltimore Arena, where they waged one of the league's best rivalries in the 1960s and early 1970s.
It was clear that a sizable percentage of the sellout crowd of 12,376 had turned out to see Anthony. His No. 7 Knicks jersey was the most common up and down the packed stands. Small boys sported the same orange headband often favored by the former Towson Catholic star.
"Melo, give it to 'em tonight," one fan bellowed from the second deck. "You home, you home. Give it to 'em."
"Ohh!" the crowd shouted when Anthony sank his first jumper of the night two minutes in. He finished with 22 points in 29 minutes as the Knicks beat the Wizards, 98-89.
"It was a great feeling just being able to come here and feel that connection," Anthony said after the game. "I was once one of them kids who grew up here, so I can relate on a very different level."
Anthony had flown in Wednesday afternoon to surprise the children at the East Baltimore youth center that bears his name. He said he looked forward to playing a mere 10 minutes from the asphalt courts where he developed his game as a skinny grade schooler.
"It felt like a home game," he said.
Said Knicks coach Mike Woodson. "I know it's exciting times for him. It's always good to come home."
One of the Melo-clad faithful at the Baltimore Basketball Classic was Christian Jones, a Knicks fan stationed at Fort Meade.
"I'm looking around and I see a lot of Knicks jerseys, and most of them are not even Melo," he said when asked what drew the crowd. "I really think it's just having basketball, period. Baltimore has a rich history between basketball and basketball players. They create some of the best."
Other fans said they were simply excited to see NBA basketball back in the city for the first time in 14 years.
"That's probably why we came, because it is rare and there hasn't been a team in Baltimore," said Wardell Roberts of Frederick, who bought a throwback Bullets jersey for the game. "That's the main reason why we are out here tonight, because it doesn't happen all the time."
If Anthony represented Baltimore's modern contribution to the NBA, there was also a decidedly old-school vibe to Thursday night's proceedings.
Knicks great Walt "Clyde" Frazier prowled the hallways in a stylish red suit that looked like it could have come straight from his 1970s heyday. He still calls Knicks games for the MSG network.
"Hey, Walt, this bring back memories for you?" asked Wizards assistant coach Sam Cassell, who starred at the arena a time or two in his Dunbar years.
Frazier was outnumbered by his former Baltimore Bullets rivals. Kevin Loughery, Bob Ferry and Mike Riordan all grinned as they walked into the building where they played for a string of excellent Baltimore teams.
"It hasn't changed a bit," Ferry said.
"I love it," added Loughery, who played nine seasons in the city.
He gave a good-natured growl when told that Frazier was on the premises. "I used to hate that guy," Loughery said.
The former Bullets all listed rivalry games with the Knicks as their most striking memories from the arena. The teams vied for Eastern Division supremacy, and Bullets star Earl "The Pearl" Monroe gave Frazer fits with his herky-jerky spin moves.
"We were such rivals," Ferry recalled. "But it was aggravating, because they drew a lot of their fans to our building."
He sounded just like an Oriole griping about Yankees fans filling Camden Yards.
The arena showed its age in myriad ways Thursday. A modern NBA palace, it's not.
Trainers helped players stretch on tables mounted in the middle of the hallway. There were no lockers. Players dressed on folding chairs in cramped rooms with bare walls.
"Are you kidding me?" muttered one New York reporter as he surveyed the humble set-up.
"Did we have lockers?" Loughery asked with a grin.
"Yeah, we had something resembling lockers," Ferry replied. "Gus Johnson and Earl Monroe had to have some place to hang their mink coats."
Sun reporter Nick Fouriezos contributed to this article.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun