Woe is Baltimore when it comes to being a sports town.
Our baseball team has been on strike for five months. Our football team plays the Canadian game, not the NFL's. Our soccer and lacrosse teams play outdoor sports indoors. There's no pro hockey.
There is one area in which our town excels, though. That's high school basketball.
That will be evident once again this week when the fourth annual First National Bank of Maryland Charm City Classic is held at Loyola College's Reitz Arena.
Some of the best teams in the country will be playing here, including a couple local schools. Games begin Thursday with Maryland Day, a new addition to the format, with Broadneck playing Cardinal Gibbons at 5 o'clock.
At 6:45 Thomas Johnson, of Frederick, meets Southwestern. The 8:30 nightcap has Laurel Baptist vs. St. Frances, which is 15-1 and ranked No. 3 in this week's Baltimore Sun poll.
Things really heat up Friday and again Saturday when the cream goes into action, including three of the top 10 teams in the nation -- No. 1 Oak Hill, of Virginia, No. 3 St. John's-Prospect Hall and No. 10 Abraham Lincoln, of Brooklyn, N.Y.
Five of the nation's top 14 teams, including No. 12 Lake Clifton, of Baltimore, are in this tournament.
That doesn't include St. Anthony's, of Jersey City, coached by Bob Hurley Sr., or nationally unranked Baltimore Dunbar, which is 13-0 and No. 2 in The Sun poll -- and in the opinions of some experts better than Lake Clifton.
Says Dunbar coach Paul Smith, noting that his team is not ranked in the top 25: "Maybe we'll get the respect we deserve if we win this weekend."
Of special interest to those who like to see the college stars of tomorrow is that two of the country's three highest rated players will play here -- 6-foot-7 Ron Mercer, of Oak Hill, and 6-2 Stephon Marbury, of Lincoln. (Kevin Garnett, from Chicago, is the third).
It's nothing new for Bill Spotts, the promoter of this event, to bring in top teams or top players. In the past three years Charm City fans have seen Felipe Lopez, now a freshman at St. John's, who has already been on the cover of Sports Illustrated; Rasheed Wallace, the North Carolina sophomore 7-footer; and Roderick Rhodes, now at Kentucky.
Spectators have been turned away at Towson State, where the event was held the first two years, and last year at Loyola. Tickets are still available at 617-5013.
"We think we have the best high school tournament in the country," says Spotts.
Of course that's what Spotts says. He's the promoter. That's why Lake Clifton coach Charlie Moore calls Spotts "the Don King of basketball."
The superlatives sound a little different coming from Tom Strickler, a high school basketball junkie who runs a scouting service and writes a hoops newsletter.
"This is a great field," says Strickler, who came to Baltimore in 1984 from the Lancaster-Lebanon, Pa., area.
"There are other great high school tournaments around the
country, but no one does it with a local flavor the way Charm City does. It's fun to see our top teams like Lake Clifton and Dunbar against outstanding teams from out of town."
In the Northwest bracket Dunbar opens against St. Anthony's Friday at 7 p.m. Lake Clifton meets Lincoln at 8:45.
Earlier, in the Southeast bracket, Calvert Hall faces Oak Hill at 3:30, and St. John's plays Paterson (N.J.) Catholic at 5:15. Winners will meet for bracket championships Saturday starting at 7 p.m.
"Everybody's here except the Knicks and Celtics," says Lake Clifton's Moore.
Even in a tournament loaded with exciting players none is a greater crowd pleaser than 5-4 Lake Clifton dynamo Shawnta Rogers, who has not made his college choice.
"I've been watching Shawnta Rogers for four years," Strickler says, "trying to figure out on what level he'll play in college, and I've come to the conclusion that he can play anywhere."
After talking with Strickler, I'm eager to see Oak Hill's Mercer.
"Mercer is the most complete player I've ever seen in high school," says Strickler. "He can handle the ball, pass, shoot, block shots.
"I think Mercer will be better than North Carolina's Jerry Stackhouse. What I like about Mercer is he brings his game every night.
"Even Felipe Lopez doesn't do that. Lopez will have some 5-for-17 shooting nights, and he'll have some 11-for-17 nights."
Mercer next year will attend Tennessee or Kentucky.
Marbury, from Brooklyn, will attend Georgia Tech next year.
Another standout in the tournament is Laurel Baptist's 6-2 1/2 Louis Bullock, described by Strickler as "a Rodney Monroe clone," referring to the St. Maria Goretti standout who starred at N.C. State and then played one season with the Atlanta Hawks.
"Bullock is going to Michigan," says Strickler. "He broke Maryland's heart when he announced that, but Steve Fisher did a great sales job on him."
What it all adds up to is three nights of competition featuring talent as good as any in America. That's something we don't often have here.
"After 10 years in Baltimore," says Strickler, "I've concluded that this is not a college basketball town. But it is a high school town."
This week it's hard to argue with that.