Suppose there was a team that couldn't play the game. team that didn't have enough people, didn't own the right equipment, didn't know the moves, didn't stand a chance.
Suppose this team got trounced but kept trying. Suppose this team got pummeled but kept growing. Added young, scrappy guys with raw talent. Lured a flashy franchise player -- one of the best in the world -- and a cool-headed veteran who had mastered the game. Suppose this team started winning, and the fans started following, and together they went all the way to the national tournament, where the best in the country battled for the sport's highest honor.
Suppose this team was the Baltimore Ravens.
That's right. Long before Art Modell and Vinny Testaverde, long before seat licenses and stadium plans, a Cinderella team named the Ravens had it all: energy, desire, promise, youth, stars and style. Everything, that is, except money and status, and maybe that was part of the magic, too. How many teams invite their fans out to celebrate after games? How many teams give a trophy to the bus driver?
These were the Ravens, the original Baltimore Ravens, and they were as great a fledgling team as any city could want. But the networks didn't cover them. The newspapers hardly knew them. The score books are missing or long thrown away. Twenty six years ago, when the whole thing started, they were just a bunch of guys hanging out in a gym, learning the game, sizing up each other.
Which, when you think about it, is how all teams start -- even wheelchair basketball teams, like the Baltimore Ravens.
"It was a magic time."
-- Ralph Smith, Ravens' founder
Ralph Smith never expected his team to win. In the beginning, he just wanted to give the guys something to do.
Not that there weren't other activities in Baltimore for men with disabilities. At the League -- the Baltimore-Central Maryland League for Crippled Children and Adults, as it was called in 1970 -- there was singing, swimming, even wheelchair square-dancing. But when it came to competitive sports, there was nothing.
Smith, the League's red-bearded recreation director, wanted to change that.
An able-bodied high school and college basketball player, Smith had never even heard of wheelchair basketball until one of his teachers at Western Maryland College showed him an article on it. But he'd been interested in working with the disabled &L; community ever since the summer he taught a neighborhood boy with cerebral palsy to swim. And during college, he'd been a counselor at the League's summer camp for the disabled.
Smith was intrigued by this relatively new sport, which had started in Veterans Administration hospitals and grown to a highly competitive national league. He was so intrigued that in 1965 he went to graduate school at the University of Illinois, home of the Illinois Gizz Kids, the first college wheelchair basketball team in the country.
Wheelchair basketball shares most of the rules of NCAA basketball, except players must have disabilities which prevent them from playing on their feet. Though he was ineligible to play, Smith became the Gizz Kids' scorekeeper, and the players let him join in at practice to experience the game.
Smith was amazed by it: How quickly the players raced up and down the court in their chairs, how swiftly they maneuvered around each other, how forcefully they shot and passed the ball from their seats. The sport required enormous strength and endurance; after a few times pushing himself up and down the court, Smith didn't have enough energy to shoot the ball.
The Gizz Kids were soon to become famous for a star guard named Tom Brown, who was born without legs but blessed with a deadly shot; his 39-point game in 1968 still holds the tournament scoring record. How good was Brown? Today, people compare him not to other wheelchair basketball players, but to NBA greats Jerry West, Bob Cousy, John Stockton and Larry Bird.
But that's getting ahead of the story.
At the League, Smith wanted to start a wheelchair basketball team of his own. His first obstacle was equipment. The League only stocked hospital-style wheelchairs -- not the lighter, customized chairs typically used for wheelchair sports -- meaning Smith's players would be like able-bodied players trying to run the court in combat boots.
That is, if he had any players. The only person at the League who'd ever played before was John James, who learned the sport in a rehabilitation center after having polio. James, already over 40 and destined to be the team's elder statesman, took on the task of teaching others the game.
As for the others, well, as far as Smith was concerned, if a guy could push a wheelchair, he could come out for practice. There was Claude Garrison and Jim "Jimbo" West and a few more besides, all local guys with a craving to play. It was a start -- even if a 12-man roster did seem like a dream back then. "We were out there having fun," said Garrison, who was shot and paralyzed after stumbling into a robbery when he was a teen-ager. "We weren't taking it seriously."
Fun? Let's see, they had no uniforms, no bus, not enough players, and, best as anyone can recall, no real games, short of exhibitions -- read: blowouts -- with more experienced teams. Their hands were bruised and blistered from learning to maneuver the chairs, and some of the players lacked even the most basic skills. "How do you make a layup?" West asked Smith at practice one day.
"It was a developmental season," said Smith, a hands-on general manager who did everything from recruit players to pass out towels to work the clock.
Not to mention play for the team.
Between graduate school and the League, Smith had served in Vietnam, where a bullet had shattered his left knee and femur. When he healed, his left leg was two inches shorter than his right leg.
According to the rules, Smith was now eligible to play wheelchair basketball. And once, when the team couldn't field enough guys for an exhibition, the manager grabbed a chair and got in the game.
The team needed a father, and that was Ralph Smith.
"I told them, whatever you do, don't have the name be 'Wheels' or 'Rounds' or 'Wheelies,' like those others teams. This wasn't some rehab program or feel-good mission. These were athletes."
-- Bob Ardinger, No. 13
Bob Ardinger says "Ravens" was his idea, and back then, Ardinger was full of ideas.
He was a college student at the University of Maryland when the team got started, a leftist, an activist, the kind of guy who stood outside Camp David yelling insults at President Nixon, the kind of guy who challenged his high school gym teacher to a game of HORSE just to prove he could play. Ardinger, who walked with a brace on one leg, the result of a childhood case of spinal meningitis, was proud to tell you he thought Jerry Lewis was Satan.
Ardinger wanted to crush the image of disabled people as poster children -- angelic, asexual, helpless and always smiling -- and wheelchair basketball seemed the perfect way to do it. He didn't just want to be a dominant player, he wanted to be a personality: the fast-breaking showoff, the long-haired loudmouth, the guy who thought nothing of wheeling out of bounds to ask a girl in the stands for a date. Hardly a game went by without No. 13 diving out of his chair to grab a ball. He was the Ravens' Dennis Rodman, minus the tattoos and earrings.
"I wanted it to be a glamorous sport," he said. "I wanted to convey that this wasn't just guys with disabilities, but athletes -- good-looking, entertaining, healthy people."
Ardinger paid attention to the details: He wore red headbands, ++ signed his phone number with his autograph, loudly corrected ++ announcers who mispronounced his last name. The team's name was an important detail, too. Ardinger hated names that seemed to emphasize a team's disabilities over the athletics -- Springfield Spoke Jockeys, Chattanooga Big Wheels.
He was watching a group of city kids playing pickup ball one day when he saw the name Ravens hand-written on their jerseys. Ravens -- just like the Edgar Allan Poe poem. Who'd ever heard of a team with that name? It was strong, simple and, best of all, it said Baltimore.
Was it decided? Well, 26 years is a long time, remember. Some of the guys say other names were suggested -- Cougars among them. Supposedly, the question came down to a vote. Hands were raised, the result was split, and someone, no one's quite sure who, broke the tie.
That was that. No focus groups, no market research, no newspaper surveys.
"No one ever said anything after that," said Ardinger. "All of us loved the name. And it would have been the same if it had been the Cougars. It just didn't matter. We were a team."
A Ravens picture from the 1971-72 inaugural season shows nine players sitting in wheelchairs and smiling. A few hold basketballs. One is making a fist.
Bob Ardinger is wearing a headband and flashing a peace sign.
The team needed a character, and that was Ardinger.
"Those first couple of years were the most fun. It didn't matter if we got beat, we'd still go out for beer and pizza."
-- Mike Naugle, the first coach
The Ravens stunk.
It was their debut season in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association, and the team from Baltimore was getting blown away by as much as 50 points a game.
What keeps a losing team from falling apart? The answer is in the memories: Carl Younkin was Cousin and Andre Johnson was JJ and Ardinger had a flock of girls that followed him everywhere. The team traveled up and down the East Coast in a ragtag caravan -- one station wagon, two trucks -- eating homemade sandwiches or stopping at fast-food restaurants. They'll never forget the frigid night they drove home with the station wagon's back window broken, or the time they had a cupcake fight and trashed the motel room.
Lots of teams say they're a family, but this team really was one. Where would the Ravens have been without John James' wife, Miss Betty? She fixed the sandwiches, repaired the uniforms, kept the score book, made the wake-up calls on road trips, brought gum to games for players with dry mouths. "No, you get your own gum," she once told a parched opponent. "This gum is for my players."
And what about Bob Ardinger's roommate, Morty Katz? He became the team's equipment manager the night someone's wheelchair busted mid-game. He had a mild case of cerebral palsy, but the Ravens couldn't function without him.
This was a team of men with disabilities in the days before the Americans with Disabilities Act, in the days when they might show up to a game and have to be carried up steps to the gym. This was a team that was half black in a sport that was mostly white, a team without much money in a sport that demanded plenty.
But most of all, it was a team of athletes -- traveling, competitive athletes -- and if they weren't good basketball players they'd never have gone anywhere. It was an 1-11 season. But it was also the season that Mary Ellen Younkin called Ralph Smith at the League to ask about opportunities for her husband, Carl.
Voted the best athlete in his senior class in high school, Carl had been paralyzed at the age of 19 after falling off a silo on a construction job. Now an expert chair-handler who knew the game, he was the defensive specialist the Ravens had been looking for.
This was also the season that an orthopedic surgeon gave Smith a scouting tip: A Baltimore teen-ager with hip necrosis was recovering from surgery. The kid couldn't run, but he was a strong athlete in need of a sport. Did Smith want him for the team?
Did Jerry Reinsdorf want Michael Jordan? Smith made a recruiting trip to the hospital.
Rodney Allen was six feet tall, short for a center, and because of his bad hip he sat slumped back in the wheelchair. But from that chair he launched shots no defender could touch; his arms, long and powerful, stole rebounds from bigger men.
Ardinger, Younkin, Allen: The Ravens' starting five was almost there.
And then Smith got to thinking. Wasn't there a famous Gizz Kid due to graduate from Illinois in the spring of 1972? A Gizz Kid who might want a job at the new rehabilitation center in Baltimore? Smith, mind whirring, picked up the phone. Say, maybe Tom could coach the team, too. ...
The team needed a star, and that was Tom Brown.
"I told them, don't expect to win ... the hard games. I told them we just wanted to be respectable in the conference, and the rest would come."
Tom Brown, No. 44
Practice changed first.
Goodbye pick-up games, hello drills. Goodbye every man for himself, hello plays, passes, game plans, picks. The new guy was in charge, and he wanted things done his way. No more drinking before coming to the gym, no more skipping practice. Can't dribble past your defenders? Ten laps. Missed layups? The team shoots until it makes 50 in a row.
Sure, there was grumbling, but the Ravens were getting better, and they knew it.
"Basically they were a run and gun ball team before I came," Brown said. "We had to learn our roles and blend the talents. Bob's strength was his speed, but he didn't know what to do with it. Carl Younkin wasn't that great of a scorer, but he was terrific on defense."
And so the Ravens' game began to take shape, a fast-breaking, full-court pressing, crowd-thrilling game -- think UNLV's Running Rebels -- that compensated for lack of height with blazing speed. Brown was the shooting machine who scored points in the clutch, Allen grabbed the rebounds, Ardinger ran the fast break. At the end of their second season, the Ravens were 8-4.
"The spectators were fascinated," said Mike Naugle, aquatics director at the League and Ravens coach until Brown showed up. "There were people hitting the basket from 25 feet, lots of contact, players flying out of chairs. Tom had the ability to maneuver his chair so someone would think they had him, and he'd spin and go right by them."
The spectators were part of the magic, too. Brown, a national tournament veteran, had never seen crowds like those in Baltimore: 400, 500, even 1,500 people packing the junior high and high school gyms where the Ravens played. "Seeing a full house of people cheering you on," said Brown, "that's something people in wheelchairs aren't accustomed to."
At $1 a game, the Ravens were probably the best deal in town, and when people saw the flying wheelchairs and fast breaks, they were hooked. (Spectators caught on easily to the variations from standard basketball: More than two pushes without dribbling was a traveling violation, and offensive players had six seconds in the lane.)
It wasn't just the team's friends and relatives in the stands; this team had hard-core fans. It had Hampden Girl Scout Troop 734, which never missed a game, following the Ravens to Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Virginia. It had Midge Hoerr, who had first seen wheelchair basketball in the hospital where her brother was treated after a diving accident. Hoerr ran bake sales at Ravens games, put posters in schools, cooked Sunday dinner for players, followed them to restaurants after victories.
Oh, yes, the Ravens had a bus now, too, thanks to their new co-sponsor, the Maryland Rehabilitation Center. Harold Wingler, an MRC maintenance worker, was another big fan of the team, so one day, when the bus needed a driver, he climbed behind the wheel. Just being around the team was pay enough for him.
By the end of the second season, the Ravens were in third place in a tough conference. They had a following. They were improving. But something was missing.
And then came the call from California. It was Peter Arballo.
A promising baseball pitcher who'd been invited to the Philadelphia Phillies' training camp, Arballo had been paralyzed in a car accident before ever getting his tryout. Devastated, he gained weight, started drinking, sunk into depression. Wheelchair sports had gotten his life back on track again.
A few years earlier, Arballo had met Tom Brown at the Pan American Games in Jamaica. He'd never seen a basketball player like Brown. This guy could do it all: reverse layups, incredible hook shots, behind-the-back passes. The greatest shooter in the world, Arballo thought. He'd do anything to play with him.
Now Arballo -- an experienced player who was moving to Silver Spring for work -- would get his chance.
The team needed one last piece, and that was Peter Arballo.
"We needed Tom's skills, but we never could have gone to the national tournament without Pete. He was the quarterback of the team."
-- Ralph Smith
They were poor city kids playing with college guys. Blacks playing with whites. Teen-agers playing with men twice their age. They were men disabled from birth playing with men who'd once run on their feet; men in wheelchairs playing with those who could walk away from practice. They were men with all the ego and insecurities and differences that men have.
Arballo was the glue that made the Ravens stick together.
He took over as practice coach, leaving Brown's energy for games, and his outgoing, easy personality was perfect for the job. A stickler for fundamentals with a knack for dealing with people, Arballo knew how to cool players' tempers. If a player complained that Brown took too many shots, Arballo pulled him aside.
"Say I pass the ball to Tom 20 times, anywhere on the court," Arballo remembers saying. "How many shots does he make?"
"18 or 19."
"And if I pass it to you 20 times?"
"14 or 15."
"You tell me, who would you give the ball to? You work hard, you'll get your shots."
Before games, Arballo wore his lucky top hat. During games, he was the play-making guard who got the ball where it needed to go. From the start of the season, they knew they had something special. By the end, they were conference champs, averaging 72 points a game.
Arballo: "Rodney would grab the rebound, throw an outlet pass to me and Ardinger would be gone on the fast break. Two points. Or I'd bring the ball down, Tom would go to the left side or right and get around the screen, and I'd throw him the pass. Two points. Carl would set the screen for Tom and Rodney would get the rebound. It was rhythm with music."
In the third season, the Ravens finished first in their conference. League records say the team was 12-0, though some players remember one loss, a loss that kept them from getting too cocky before the playoffs.
Oh yes, the Ravens had made it to the playoffs. First stop was the Southeastern regional tournament, where the Ravens beat the High Point (N.C.) Warriors, 70-54, and then the Charlotte Hawks, 75-67. Now the Ravens were Southeastern regional champions, one of the Sweet Sixteen of wheelchair basketball, on their way to Temple University for the sectional playoffs.
The letters, cards and telegrams poured in.
THAT'S THE START OF YOUR HAT TRICK GO GET THEM IN PHILADELPHIA -- BALTIMORE CLIPPERS.
WE HOPE YOU GO ALL THE WAY -- THE CAPITAL BULLETS.
GOOD LUCK AND WIN IT ALL. MAYBE YOU WILL START SOMETHING IN BALTIMORE THAT WE CAN CONTINUE IN 1974 -- A CHAMPIONSHIP. BEST WISHES -- JOE THOMAS AND THE BALTIMORE COLTS.
"We got to a certain point, it was like holding our breath," said Ardinger, who by this time had teen-age girls ironing his name on their T-shirts. "Like sooner or later we were going to lose. Like we'd gone farther than we deserved."
They played the Boston Mustangs on March 16, 1974. At halftime, the Ravens were down by 5, but at one point, they were something like 15 points behind.
"Tom took control," Smith said. "He took over the game and started scoring. He was not going to allow us to lose."
Brown scored 33 points that night. Final score: Ravens 60, Mustangs 57.
One more opponent stood between Baltimore and the Final Four, and what an opponent it was: the New Jersey Jets, fresh off a 30-point rout of the Charlotte Hawks. Bigger and more experienced, they'd never lost to the Ravens; in fact, they'd humiliated them by 50 points their first season.
Smith, the nervous manager, got up the morning of the game and took a walk. He headed toward the street the team would need to cross to get to the tournament. There were policemen all over the place.
"What's going on?" Smith asked.
"We've got a parade coming through here later," the officer said. "Once it starts, no one gets across the street."
Smith was so wound up he'd forgotten about St. Patrick's Day. He went back to the hotel, got the team ready early, and beat the parade.
The Ravens played like they had all year, fast and furious.
Brown: "We pressed them the whole game. We didn't have the height, so it was the only way we could compete. With about 30 seconds to go, we were four points up. I remember telling our guys to sit back and smile in their faces; even if they made a basket we would win. ... And they missed the basket."
Final score: Ravens 69, New Jersey 65.
The Ravens smiled in their faces all the way to the Final Four.
"Now, therefore, I, William Donald Schaefer, Mayor of the City of Baltimore, do hereby proclaim March 28, 1974 as 'Baltimore Ravens Day' in Baltimore, and do urge all citizens of Baltimore to join me in extending to the team congratulations on their Regional Championship, and best wishes for their success in the coming National Championship competition..."
-- Mayor's proclamation.
How big was it? Oh, it was big. So big the Girl Scouts rented a Winnebago and drove all the way to Champaign, Ill., just to see it. So big Mary Ellen Younkin, Carl's wife, rode an airplane for the first time in her life. So big the pilot made an announcement, welcoming the Eastern sectional champs.
"It was bigger than anything we'd been at," said Ardinger. "I'd never seen so many wheelchairs in one place at one time."
In three short years, the Ravens had gone from the team that couldn't find enough players to one of the top four in the country. They'd come out of nowhere, a team no one had heard of, and now, at the nationals, no one gave them a chance. To win it all, they'd have to get past the defending national champion Indianapolis Mustangs, a Goliath of a team that literally towered over the Ravens -- four guys over six feet and one pushing seven feet.
Ask the players what happened in the Indianapolis game, and they all put it a little differently.
Arballo: "Our team kind of fell apart."
Brown: "The shots weren't falling."
Younkin: "Shots Tom usually hit, he wasn't hitting."
The game took place at the University of Illinois -- Tom Brown's old stomping ground -- but the old Brown touch wasn't there. The star shot only 11 of 34 from the floor that night.
The Ravens didn't go gently. Indianapolis put together two eight-point rallies, built as much as an 11-point lead, and still Baltimore stayed in the game. Brown had 23 points, Allen 18. For Indianapolis, it was a hard-fought 73-69 victory.
Four points. So close.
Baltimore went on to the consolation round. Indianapolis went on to another national championship.
"It was so disappointing," said Sam "Doc" Dent, a rookie that year. "People were crying, hiding their heads under coats. That season being so great, you just didn't learn how to lose. And we knew how good we were."
In the consolation game, the Ravens were good enough to come back. They beat the Music City Wheelers, 86-81, to finish third in the nation. And that night, during a banquet at the Ramada Inn, three Ravens were named to the All-Tournament Team, the most from any squad.
Representatives of the country's 91 wheelchair basketball teams weren't just saying that Rodney Allen had proven himself against bigger players; or that Ardinger had played an outstanding offensive tournament; or that Brown, with his tremendous speed and all-round play, had led an inexperienced team to the nationals.
They were saying the Baltimore Ravens -- champions or not -- had gone from the basement to the best.
"People in the city really missed an opportunity, not getting to know this team. It was quite a miraculous achievement."
-- Bob Ardinger, now a civil and disability rights consultant in Columbia.
Twenty-six years after its birth, the Baltimore Ravens wheelchair basketball team is still alive and playing -- even making headlines with a lawsuit challenging the NFL franchise's use of its name. But in all those years of competition, and many more visits to the playoffs, the team never made it back to the national tournament, never ranked as high as it did in the magic season of '74.
After that year, the dream team split up. Tom Brown was offered a better-paying position in real estate and moved to Richmond. Peter Arballo, then working for Amtrak, was transferred to the West Coast. Smith left Baltimore to get his Ph.D in therapeutic recreation.
"I wish we could have played one more year, just to see," said Allen, now 42 and living in Baltimore. "Just to see if we could get there."
"Tom and I still reminisce," said Arballo, 58, who lives in San Antonio, Texas. "Just think what would have happened if we stayed together one more year."
Last March, the National Wheelchair Basketball Association held its 48th annual national tournament in Portland, Ore. The association has expanded to 170 teams, with two divisions, and there are teams for women and teen-agers, too. But some things haven't changed.
Inside the Final Four program is a list of tournament records. One team's name appears three times, all for records set in 1974. Highest average game score (77.5). Total field goals (65). Total points (155).
Baltimore Ravens. Baltimore Ravens. Baltimore Ravens.
Today, you'll hear a lot about the other Baltimore Ravens, the team that brought football back to a football-starved town. Today, amid the frenzy and excitement, the city wonders: Can the Baltimore Ravens build a winning tradition? Can they bring pride to their fans? Can they fly? Can they soar?
They already have, Baltimore. They already have.
The new season
The Baltimore Ravens wheelchair basketball team is gearing up for its 1996-1997 season.
For more information about the team and its schedule, call (410) 679-9264.
Pub Date: 9/01/96