Taking it to the hoop: NCAAs pull in fans

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Visitors to the Inner Harbor yesterday were greeted with a huge, inflated -- although slightly misshapen -- basketball. Politicians shot at hoops mounted on cartoon crabs. Throughout downtown, hotel and restaurant managers were counting extra receipts.

It's all part of Baltimore's first chance to get in on March Madness, the NCAA basketball tournament. The rite of spring has a mystical pull that inspires basketball fanatics to cross the country to root on their teams.

This is an event that can bring together a farmer and a banker from small Minnesota communities in a far-away arena and turn them into fast friends in the name of sports fandom.

That was the case with Kevin Zimmer and Ty Knoff, two die-hard Minnesota Golden Gophers fans. Mr. Zimmer raises cattle and hogs on his farm in Fairmont, Minn., near the Iowa border. Mr. Knoff owns a bank in Cokato, a Western Minnesota town of 2,500.

Because Minnesota is one of eight teams playing in the East Region games at the Baltimore Arena today, they flew here on the same flight Tuesday night, watched yesterday's practice at the Arena together and then headed out to Fells Point to catch some of the flavor of Baltimore.

"The ambience of the harbor and all the cafes here is just gorgeous," said Mr. Knoff, who said he also traveled to New York two years ago when Minnesota won the National Invitation Tournament, a sort of consolation event for those who don't get an NCAA bid. "Baltimore's a much more beautiful city than New York."

While Mr. Knoff flew to Baltimore, his family was vacationing in Sanibel, Fla. Asked when he might join his family, he said, "God willing, we'll never get there."

Mr. Zimmer is no less zealous in his support of the Gophers. Both men are season-ticket holders. But Mr. Zimmer must make a 2 1/2 -hour drive from Fairmont to Minneapolis for games. "I'm just a big basketball fan," he said.

So are John Thomas and his daughter, Sally. They paid to park at an Inner Harbor lot, had the crab cake lunch at Phillips and watched Wake Forest work out.

They don't have tickets for today's games, but when they left for the drive back to Washington, they did have their official NCAA East Region baseball caps.

"We wanted," said Mr. Thomas, "to get involved."

Catching the fever

Arnold Johnson, a self-pronounced "big-time basketball fan," bused in to Baltimore from Newark, N.J., to watch the practices and visit his sister. He also did not have tickets for today's games. But he had caught some of the fever.

"I was down at the Inner Harbor, and people are very excited," Mr. Johnson said. "That's all you hear people talking about -- on buses, on the streets, in McDonald's. The conversation everywhere is the NCAA."

Mr. Johnson and the Thomases are just the kind of curious and eager spenders city officials had in mind when they devised plans to wring as many tourist dollars as possible out of a tournament whose games have been sold out for a year.

As fans began to arrive yesterday in Baltimore -- more than 15,000 visitors are expected -- hot dog vendors and hotel managers alike scrambled to grab their share of what tourism officials estimate will be a $4 million windfall.

The tournament's four-day run here was kicked off yesterday in typical Baltimore fashion, with a pep rally billed as "Hoopla" at the Inner Harbor Amphitheater. It was designed to lure locals without tickets and day-trippers near the excitement of the event.

Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke, Gov. Parris N. Glendening and Washington Bullets executive Wes Unseld dribbled basketballs toward 7-foot-high baskets mounted on a cartoon crab. The mayor and the former basketball star casually flipped balls through the hoops.

The governor tossed up two bricks.

'A big deal'

Other than that, it was all marching bands and speeches, basking in the early spring sunshine and anticipating national television exposure. Freeman Hrabowski, president of tournament host University of Maryland Baltimore County, told the crowd: "This is economic development. Fifty-one million people will be focusing on Baltimore during this period. That's a big deal."

The school is expected to take home up to $70,000 as its share of ticket sales, according to tournament manager Martin Schwartz. Mr. Schwartz said the school gets 10 percent of net revenues, and the city-owned Arena is to get 10 percent of a gross take of $1.23 million.

Gary A. Oster, general manager of the Stouffer Harborplace Hotel, acknowledged that the postponement of last year's scheduled papal visit and the prospect of a continued baseball strike make the tournament's arrival all the more crucial for business. His hotel is renting rooms to about 200 media representatives. In all, he says, the tournament will bring in about $100,000 to the hotel and its restaurants.

"It fills guest rooms, it fills restaurants and it fills bars with patrons," he said.

Closer to the Baltimore Arena, hot dog vendor Carol Cooke was reporting a 30 percent increase in sales yesterday, largely attributable to the bus loads of fans arriving at the nearby Omni Inner Harbor Hotel.

"I was about ready to scream," she said. "I was going crazy for a while."

A tall order

At the Noble House Cafe and Grill, business was brisk yesterday. Manager Kristine Ireland said that was normal for a Wednesday, when the Mechanic Theater has matinees, but she suspected some of the business was due to the tournament.

"There were a lot of tall people in here, if that means anything," she said.

While Baltimore prepared to play host to the NCAA tournament, two state teams have first-round games tonight in points west. The University of Maryland plays Gonzaga in Salt Lake City, and Mount St. Mary's tries to upset Kentucky in Memphis, Tenn. For Maryland, it marks the return of coach Gary Williams, who missed the Terrapins' past four games while he recovered from pneumonia. For the Mount, Jim Phelan is debuting in the Division I tournament in his 41st year coaching in Emmitsburg.

In the women's tournament tonight, Mount St. Mary's plays Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and Loyola faces Oklahoma in Ruston, La.

Calm for now

At the Arena yesterday, there were perhaps 60 fans when the first team, North Carolina A&T;, began practice. By the time it ended to a nice round of applause, there was a crowd of 200. During the course of the afternoon, as many as 400 fans watched final preparations by each of the teams.

This was the calm before the storm. There were no lines at concession stands yesterday, no scalpers outside.

But Col. Ronald Daniel, chief of the city Police Department's criminal investigation division, said he would send police to the Arena for Saturday's games if he gets reports of ticket scalping today.

"If we would get complaints that this is going on a lot, I would send detectives down there to investigate," he said.

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