Cal Ripken Jr. once played in 2,632 consecutive baseball games, but he loved basketball so much that, in the 1990s, his agent negotiated a clause in his contract with the Orioles that allowed him to play hoops. Where other players were banned from a little pickup, Ripken could build a gym with a full-size court adjoining his kitchen. And build he did.
Tales of Ripken's Baltimore-area games have been around since the Iron Man was able to draw iron. (Of a youth-league game, The Baltimore Sun's Mike Klingaman wrote in 1995: "In a two-point Aberdeen victory over rival Bel Air, 11-year-old Ripken scored all 24 of his team's points.")
But the details ESPN's Tim Kurkjian, a former Sun reporter and longtime Maryland resident, offered in an episode of "The Jonah Keri Podcast" on Friday make you wonder what Ripken might have become had he grown bigger than his 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame.
Three nights a week during the offseason early in his pro career, Ripken would head to Bryn Mawr School with guys like his brother, Bill; pitcher Mike Flanagan; and Kurkjian. Usually, enough people showed for five-on-five. Late in one especially close game, with victory assured for the next team that scored, Kurkjian recalls Ripken doing something totally bizarre: He called a timeout.
Ripken "pulled his team over to figure out how they were going to score the last point and win the game," Kurkjian said. "And, again, there's nobody waiting to play next. You're going to play again. There's no pressure in that. So they miss the shot, we get the rebound, we score and he is furious. And that's when I learned, all those games in that dingy, dinky little gym, just how competitive he is, how important it is to not just win the game but play the game correctly."
Kurkjian played basketball in high school. He's only 4 years older than Ripken. That could not prepare him for those Bryn Mawr games.
"There were times when I was on the other team from him," he said. "If his man was a little bit late getting down on offense, Ripken would harass me all the way down the court on defense. He's a foot taller than I am, he weighs 100 pounds more than I do, and he would annoy me and harass me all the way down the court. And finally, I just looked him and I said, 'Would you leave me alone? It's a pickup game.' And he went, 'No.' And that was it. That's how he did things."
Ripken later built his own court ("Greatest gym ever made," Kurkjian said. "Just walk down from the kitchen, and you're in the gym."), and Kurkjian left the list of regulars. The cameos over the years at Ripken's games included some of Baltimore's basketball royalty: former Dunbar stars Sam Cassell and Kurk Lee. Football stars, too: ex-Ravens Adalius Thomas and Tony Banks, among others, Ripken said on a "BmoreOpinionated" podcast episode last month.
When Kurkjian came around again in 2002 for an ESPN story, Ripken said to visit on a Thursday night. "That's the 'A' game night," he told Kurkjian.
"I show up, he flips me a jersey and he says, 'You're playing' — I was not anticipating this — so I'm in the game and I'm wearing a [Minnesota] Timberwolves genuine jersey, and we're 'playing' the [New York] Knicks, and they have genuine Knick jerseys," Kurkjian said. "I get caught on a switch the first time down the floor and I'm guarding LaBradford Smith, who was an All-American at Louisville and had played in the NBA three years earlier. I was so happy that instead of just looking at me like, 'What is the point?' he went right to the rim and, like, dropped it in as I stood helplessly by."
Kurkjian's team that night played nine games; it lost nine games. One recent night at a ballpark, former Orioles pitcher and current broadcaster Rick Sutcliffe approached Ripken and Kurkjian with a question.
"Tim didn't really play in those games with you, did he?" he asked Ripken, who answered: "Yes, Tim played in our games plenty of times, and the last time he played, his team went 0-9."
Said Kurkjian: "I went, 'Oh, my God. This is a random night. They play every night.' And he remembered a night from 15 years earlier where our team went 0-9. I said, 'How could you — how could you possibly remember that?' And he looked at me and said: 'How could I forget that?' "