By Keith Mills
The Baltimore Neighborhood Basketball League celebrated its 40th year of competition last weekend and it was a setting fit for such a significant milestone -- a warm and humid day at the famed Dome at the Madison Square Recreation Center in East Baltimore.
"You can't play these games anywhere else," said Sherron Bogues, director of the city's current BNBL program.
"Pretty much every great player who ever came out of Baltimore played BNBL," said Leon Howard.
Howard arrived in Baltimore 42 years ago and never left. In 1970 he was a member of the Baltimore City Recreation and Parks staff that launched this city-wide, playground basketball league, triggering an explosion in Baltimore area basketball.
"The idea for the league actually began one year earlier," said Howard, who ran and coached the legendary Lafayette Courts basketball program that produced Skip Wise, Larry Gibson, Muggsy Bogues and Reggie Williams. “Coca-Cola sponsored a league that some guys played in. One year later Wes Unseld of the Bullets got involved along with Bethlehem Steel and we started BNBL."
What made the league unique was that it was played on playgrounds and middle schools throughout the city -- Carroll Park, Leith Walk, Bentalou, C.C. Jackson, Mt. Royal, Cecil-Kirk, Harlem Park, John E. Howard, Herring Run, Madison Square. Some games were played inside but most were played on the same playgrounds where kids gathered daily to work on their game, though now there was neighborhood pride and championships on the line.
"Back then, it was truly neighborhood vs. neighborhood. Eastside vs. Westside," Howard said. "We had 230 teams playing all over the city. The championships were played at Morgan State and televised by Channel 2. It was big."
Those 230 teams translated to nearly 3,000 boys and girls every summer and tremendous competition that spawned a generation of big-time players.
Some, like Sam Cassell, Bogues, Williams, Quintin Dailey and David Wingate, went on to successful college and NBA careers. Others, like Gert Scott, Daphne Lee, Tori Harrison and Rosemary Kiosorek, used the league as a springboard to outstanding careers in womens basketball while others, like Wise and Dickie Kelly, are still revered household names throughout a city that looks at the Dome like baseball fans look at Oriole Park at Camden Yards.
"It's a shrine," said Will Wells, the long-time director of the Madison Square rec center and coach of the St. Frances boys basketball team.
It was also the host of last week's 40th birthday celebration, which featured 10 championship games and an awards ceremony honoring many of the men and women who helped start the program four decades ago and help keep it going today, including: former league commissioners John Kirby, Lou Engle and NBA Hall of Famer Wes Unseld; coaches William Grace, Jerry Hahn, Gordon Baker, Gwen Snowden, John Randolph, James Wises, Will Wells, Herman Johnson, Edgar Bell, Rosemarie Gehring, Anthony Lewis, John Murdock, Gregory Butler, Jimmy Conyers, Calvin Dotson, Wardell Selby and Henry Powell; and players George Pinchbeck, Kurk Lee, Sam Cassell, Carmelo Anthony, Juan Dixon, Skip Wise, Cleveland Rudisill, Ernie Graham, Herman Harried, Tim Dawson, Cheryl McCormick, Angie Jones, Gert Scott, Daphne Lee, Muggsy Bogues, Reggie Williams, Tim Greene, Tawanda Scott, Carolyn Allen-Brown and Rodney Coffield.
Amateur Athletic Association basketball hurts the current BNBL landscape a bit now, though the competition was again fierce as championships were decided in the following age groups:
7U Boys -- Walter P. Carter vs. Madson
9U Boys -- Leith Walk vs. Walter P. Carter
11U Girls -- BeMore Hoopsters vs. Baltimore Hoopsters
11U Boys -- Walkter P. Carter vs. Bentalou
13U Boys -- Chick Webb vs. Sam Cassell All-Stars
13U Girls -- Baltimore Hoopsters vs. MDScholars
15U Boys -- Cecil-Kirk vs. Team Melo
17 U Boys -- C.C. Jackson vs. Bentalou
19U Girls Champion: Team Rain
Posted July 15, 2009