UPPER MARLBORO - The National Rookie League might be better than you think.
True, the uniforms look like they were borrowed from high school physical education classes, and yes, there probably were too many no-pass, one-shot possessions in the first quarter.
But the performance of the players, specifically those of the Baltimore Blaze, which beat the Washington Justice, 104-101, in its opener, improved during the game, giving the better-than-expected crowd of about 1,000 at Show Place Arena the bargain that one expects from minor-league sports.
"The quality of play is better than I thought it would be for the first game," Hyattsville's Will Thomas said, "and the venue is nice."
Thomas, 37, came with his two children after a breakfast discussion with his brother, Herb.
The Thomas brothers watch every Wizards game they can, as well as the Mystics and the U.S. Basketball League's Washington Congressionals. So with the price of a ticket at $7, it was as simple as Herb mentioning the game, and Will saying, "Sure, let's go."
For 79-year-old Upper Marlboro resident Robert Davis, a former board member with Prince Georges County Parks and Recreation, it was important to give the Justice the support he saw lacking with the Chesapeake Icebreakers, a minor-league hockey team that played in the Show Place Arena before folding.
"We used to come to ice hockey events, so we thought we should support this," Davis said.
NRL commissioner Bruce Stern is just happy the season is under way. "Being able to play the first game was a success; it's something for us to build upon," he said.
As a bonus, Stern got a game that came down to the final seconds, with Washington's Willie Smith missing two late three-pointers.
The Blaze had several opportunities to put the game away in the second and third periods but let the Justice come back from near 20-point deficits, getting the D.C.-heavy crowd involved.
According to Blaze forward and former Loyola player Blanchard Hurd, the crowd helped wake his team up. "It helped the game, but it also helped us get the momentum back again," he said.
For Hurd, the Greyhounds' leading scorer last season, playing in the NRL was beneficial for reasons beyond the ability to play in front of International Basketball League coaches such as Bernie Bickerstaff of the St. Louis Swarm and Terry Truax of the BayRunners.
It also meant a liberation of sorts from college basketball, where your team's offensive system and the defensive zones can leave you feeling shackled.
"I loved it," Hurd said. "It feels great to be out of college. Now we get to play the pro style."