Advertisement
News

Three of Blast's giants set to be Hall pioneers

When Kenny Cooper walks through Baltimore-Washington International Airport, people still call him "Coach" and ask about the team. And though Cooper is now a businessman in Dallas, it is fitting he is still identified with the indoor soccer team that would not even have come to Baltimore if not for him.

Cooper and all-star players Mike Stankovic and the late Stan Stamenkovic will become the first inductees into the Blast Hall of Fame tonight during a ceremony at 1st Mariner Arena.

Advertisement

As Cooper was preparing to travel here for the induction, he recalled his instant rapport with this city and how it happened that the Houston Summit made the move to Baltimore.

"Our owner, Bernie Rodin, had narrowed the choice to Baltimore or Boston and said it was up to me," said Cooper, a native of Blackpool, England.

Advertisement

"I came to Baltimore and was excited from the beginning. It just reminded me of Liverpool. The drive in from the airport was like going to Liverpool. The harbor and the people. It was like home away from home for me. It just took me back in time.

"And once you get to know those people, they're like the salt of the earth. Boston or Baltimore? I never even made the trip to Boston."

Cooper, 59, said his family's best friends are still in Baltimore.

He arrived here in 1980 with his dark suit, red handkerchief and effervescent personality and set out to sweep a city off its feet - a feat he accomplished in the 1980s, when the Blast consistently drew nearly 12,000 fans a game to the Baltimore Arena.

He became the team's first magician, using his talent for inspirational speaking to blend an irresistible mix of talent. He concocted a team that captured the fans' hearts with its blue-collar work ethic.

And it was a team that included such local players as Nick Mangione and Tim Wittman, other Americans such as Dave MacWilliams, Joe Fink, Scott Manning and Keith Van Eron and foreign players such as Stankovic, Stamenkovic and Heinz Wirtz.

"I remember, before I joined the Blast, I was in high school and everywhere I went it was 'Kenny Cooper, Kenny Cooper, Kenny Cooper,' " said Wittman, who is now the Blast's coach.

"He took this sport from zero to packing the stands. Kenny was a professional in the way he handled everything - and there was always a show. And he had all these sayings."

Advertisement

For instance:

Aggravation outweighs production.

Dare to be great.

I want you to leave a piece of yourself on the carpet.

We've got role models, not parole models.

"I think he carried a Reader's Digest in his back pocket," said Wittman, laughing. "But motivation was his biggest strength as a coach. No one was better."

Advertisement

In the summer of 1983, Cooper brought Stamenkovic - the team's second magician - to town. Stamenkovic immediately promised to make Cooper's prediction of a title in four years come true.

As the Colts packed up and left the city in March 1984, the Blast was heating up. Playing .500 soccer in the first few months, the team finally began to click, ripping off a 17-game winning streak that led to the division, conference and, eventually, MISL titles.

Stamenkovic was not your typical soccer player. In a game of thin and swift athletes, he was a hefty, relatively stationary player who did not bother to hide the fact that he smoked and loved pizza.

He arrived here a meaty 225 to 230 pounds with a contract that would reward him for weight loss. A bit under 6 feet, he promised to get down to 190.

Dancing feet

And though he roped the team's youngest member, Wittman, into buying him six-packs of beer on some road trips, he did eventually - with the help of everyone on the team - make the desired weight.

Advertisement

But Stamenkovic, at any weight, had a gift. He had feet that danced.

"I remember, I was about 10 years old and I went to my first or second indoor game in Phoenix with a friend and his parents," said the Blast's current goalie, Scott Hileman.

"I remember my friend's parents telling me we were going to see 'the best player you'll ever see. He does everything with the bottom of his feet.' I remember being amazed."

It was as if Stamenkovic had an invisible string connecting his foot with the ball. He could roll it - seemingly in any direction - at full speed, rubbing the soft sole of his shoe over the top of the ball, almost like a caress, and never lose control.

"No one could stop him," said Wittman, who scored a lot of goals by running and positioning himself for a pass from Stamenkovic.

"I don't know if it was his size, his ballhandling or his vision. I do know he'd always find you, and I was happy to let him do it."

Advertisement

Stamenkovic was a strong man, able to hold his position in front of the goal or at the far post until he found Wittman or another teammate to receive the perfect pass.

"He was known as 'The Magician' because of the way he could also hide the ball," said Cooper. "Almost like a football quarterback faking the handoff and then going the other way. He could roll the ball behind him or sideways, so opposing players couldn't see it, and back-heel it at top speed.

"My directive to our players was simple. When Stan is on the floor, always be prepared to receive the ball, because he will find you."

Cooper said Stamenkovic, who died at 39 in January of 1996 after suffering a severe head injury in a fall at his home in Titova Uzice, Serbia, could not explain what he did any more than Pele could explain his great talent.

"It came from instinct and impulse and an incredible passion and intensity," said Cooper. "In fact, that whole team was emotional. They'd cry after a regular-season loss. I think a lot of teams today could learn from that."

And anchoring the defense was Stankovic, who believed the ball belonged to him and his team. If someone took it away, Stankovic would retrieve it. If that meant stepping on or running over an opposing player, he did it. Gladly.

Advertisement

And Stankovic had an elbow that sometimes seemed to have been sharpened to a point. He'd lift that elbow to create space in which to work.

"My job was not to score goals, but to cover the best players - the Prekis, Segotas, Zunguls and Julie Veees," Stankovic said. "And I was very happy to do it.

Ray Lewis example

"You look at basketball, when [Michael] Jordan played and now Kobe Bryant, the best forwards. They're always among the first five defenders in the league. Why is that? Because they have determination. They want the ball. You have to win the ball back.

"If you really want to win, you have to play well defensively. Sometimes it is challenging other players that is the most fun. That's how I always saw it. Look how the Ravens' Ray Lewis plays defense. He's a leader."

Stankovic, 47, has made his home here and runs the Mike Stankovic Pro Soccer Academy for children. He arrived in Baltimore before Stamenkovic and suggested his friend to Cooper as the possible missing piece of the Blast's puzzle.

Advertisement

The two looked nothing alike. Stankovic tall and angular. Stamenkovic of medium height and round body. But fans sometimes had trouble keeping their names straight. But as Wittman said the other day, "What difference did it make?"

They were the same in their hearts - fierce competitors who grew up in Yugoslavia learning to play together.

"Stan and I had a great understanding," said Stankovic. "Stan was a great point man, and I had the booming long shot and a great anticipation of where he would put the ball. And at night, we'd stay up all night after a game because he'd want to review every play. He loved the game."

Cooper, recalling his former players, noted Stankovic, who ranks third in points on the original Blast roster, was more than an enforcer.

"He was a physical presence, yes," Cooper said. "But he also had a tremendous shot in both feet and was a very good team player.

"And like Timmy [Wittman], he played almost every position. Guys like that, they usually don't get the credit. Without Mike and Stan, I'd never have worn a championship ring."

Advertisement

Tonight, three of the greatest figures in Blast history will be honored and get the credit they deserve. And, no doubt, as Cooper used to be so fond of saying, they will leave a piece of themselves on the carpet.

Blast Hall of Fame inductees

Kenny Cooper

Highlights: Coached the original Blast from 1980 to 1992, then coached the Spirit from '92 through '94. Cooper led the Blast to five division titles, five championship series appearances and the franchise's first MISL title in 1983-84. As coach of the Blast, he won 319 games and lost 232. And as the Spirit's coach in the NPSL, he was 53-27. He was a two-time MISL Coach of the Year.

Mike Stankovic

Highlights: Defender, nine-year veteran of the original Blast. Six-time MISL All-Star. Ranks third on the original Blast's all-time scoring list with 301 points. A member of the 1983-84 MISL championship team. A member of the All-Time MISL Team. Coached and played for the Spirit and still ranks 13th on Baltimore's all-time list with 219 points in six seasons.

Advertisement

Stan Stamenkovic

Highlights: Forward was nicknamed "The Magician." Played four seasons with the original Blast. Scored 329 points in 179 games. Is the team's original all-time leading scorer. Six-year veteran of the MISL, he was a four-time All-Star, a three-time Blast Most Valuable Player, including for the 1983-94 season. Though retired from professional play, he was named a member of the Blast's All-Decade Team during the 1990-91 season.

-- Sandra McKee


Advertisement