Baltimore's best young basketball prospects travel the country during the summer, on the Amateur Athletic Union scene.
"Midnight Madness" has returned to three city recreation centers, but the under-21 age limit doesn't provide a stage for the city's elite, as that format once did at the fabled Dome at Madison Square.
Without a summer league certified by the NCAA, where do college players and the occasional pro find a game in Baltimore?
From today through Thursday, there should be some fine runs at Loyola College, during the final weekly session of the camp operated there by NBA guard Juan Dixon and Loyola coach Jimmy Patsos. When the campers vacate Reitz Arena at 4 p.m. or move to a side court, Dixon will be joined by some current Greyhounds, other college players and the occasional surprise guest.
Sam Cassell showed up last summer. If the collegians didn't connect the wind sprints that he ran afterward to an NBA career entering its 14th season and his two championship rings, then they'll never get it.
Former St. John's star Marcus Hatten and Towson ace Gary Neal have stopped by. Earlier this summer, the mix included former George Washington standout Mike King and ex-Florida State point guard Todd Galloway. Loyola guard Gerald Brown told Galloway about the scene. Word of mouth alerted King, who spent last season in Thessaloniki, Greece.
"When I came home from Greece, everyone said this is the place," King said of Loyola. "One summer, it was Northwestern High. A guy opened the gym, and we came."
Another veteran of the Euro- League was stretching on the sideline when Dixon took charge.
"Mark, you're playing," Dixon said.
Karcher, who left Temple after two seasons and played briefly with the Utah Jazz, has plied his craft from Frankfurt, Germany, to Fayetteville, N.C. In Philadelphia, the 6-foot-5 wingman spent his summers on the Temple campus, in the Sonny Hill League, but before that, he worked on his game at both ends of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway.
"I made my name in D.C., in the Urban Coalition League," Karcher said. "We were on the Baltimore [high school] team, Juan and I. The pro league team had Sam and Muggsy [Bogues]. I played in the high school league in the morning and the pro league at night. I'd stay the whole day to get a minute with the pros.
"There was a guy named Goldilocks who used to run a game at an out-of-the-way court, near Biddle and Luzerne, but when I was coming out of high school, the place to be was the Dome."
That would be the court with a roof at Madison Square, the rec center on Biddle Street, a few blocks east of Harford Road. In the late 1990s, it was the scene of a late-night unlimited summer league that brought together NBA players, college All-Americans and playground legends.
That version of Midnight Madness got too big for its good, as traffic congestion was among the community complaints that brought it to an end.
The city Department of Recreation and Parks resurrected the concept just last week, with four under-17 and four under-21 teams playing late-night games at Druid Hill Park, Herring Run and the Dome at Madison Square. The old Midnight Madness created top-flight competition with spectator appeal. This version provides a healthy diversion designed to keep some young men off the street.
Philadelphia has the Sonny Hill League, Washington's offerings include the Jabbo Kenner League at Georgetown's McDonough Gym and Annapolis is on the list, but Baltimore does not have a single summer basketball league for collegians certified by the NCAA.
That void adds urgency to the search for games. During one post-Dome summer, UMBC was the hot gym. Now Dixon finds himself at the center of Baltimore basketball's summer scene.
The Portland Trail Blazers guard came up through the Cecil-Kirk Rec Center, then played for Calvert Hall and the University of Maryland when Patsos was a Terps assistant. Patsos oversees their camp. If Dixon is at the arena, he runs the businesslike games that follow.
"No one's trying to prove anything here," said Galloway, who was heading to a EuroLeague tryout camp in Italy. "You're just trying to get better."
The Loyola newcomers include Joe Miles, a transfer from Marshall who will sit out next season, and Tony Lewis, an incoming freshman from Fredericksburg, Va. Lewis will challenge for playing time in a Greyhounds backcourt that will include Brown, who sat out last year after transferring from Providence.
"This is new," Brown said. "Growing up, between AAU and camps, we rarely played pickup in the summer."
Dixon and Karcher ruefully discussed the current void in Baltimore.
Dixon: "There's no place to play."
Karcher: "[The Washington Wizards' Gilbert] Arenas plays outside."
Dixon: "I can't; my knees swell up on concrete."
Karcher: "It's at one of the projects, off 295."
Dixon: "Can't do that."
Dixon had the last word.
"I'm going to try to get a place to play at night," he said. "There's no place to play at night."