Ravens fervor is ebbing after the team led the NFL in wins, and the Orioles’ fan base is stirring again — jolted awake by a promising spring training and a forthcoming sale.

So I was struck by Mayor Brandon Scott’s boldness when he told me, “Baltimore is a basketball town above everything else.”

Scott and I spoke last week, ahead of the city hosting the CIAA tournament, an NCAA Division II men’s and women’s hoops event that brings 13 schools to CFG Arena, which finished a $250 million renovation last year. The tournament brought an estimated $30 million in economic impact, according to the city, which extended a contract with the CIAA through 2025.

“I don’t want the CIAA to ever be played in another arena,” Scott said, hoping for an extension beyond next year.

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Although Baltimore has shown signs of success with the CIAA tournament, there are obviously a lot of levels of basketball left for the city to find its way into. And, with a renovated arena, it leaves basketball lovers like me wondering: If the city can host Bruce Springsteen or Nicki Minaj, why can’t it host Division I basketball tournaments?

In recent years, Baltimore has gone through long stretches with only a few high-level basketball events. Basketball may be strong at the rec and high school levels, but above that the city is somewhat starved.

The last NCAA men’s tournament games at CFG were played in 1995. It would be nice to see the Maryland men or women play a home game there, especially after the commitment of Baltimore native and five-star recruit Derik Queen to the Terps. The women’s NCAA tournament has recently hosted early rounds at the home courts of top seeds, so the Terps tend to have tournament games at College Park, but Scott told me: “We would love to host the first round of NCAA women.”

The Wizards played a preseason game in Baltimore in 2013, drawing a sellout going against Carmelo Anthony’s Knicks. The franchise seems to be moving further south instead of coming up north more often, but Scott said he thinks the Wizards should at least host more exhibitions in the city where they used to play all their home games.

“If they want to remember how they used to win,” he said, “they gotta come back home.”

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(A quick look at the Wizards’ record the last few seasons shows he isn’t wrong. But we digress.)

One of basketball’s greatest strengths is that you can play it nearly anywhere. All you need are a hoop, a ball and a patch of flat ground. In that sense, Baltimore is a city that clearly loves to ball, and Scott pointed out that two of the four high school boys state champions came from the city last year (Edmondson-Westside and Baltimore City College). The city comes out for big stars as well — last year I saw a packed arena at UMBC for Steph Curry’s visit, and Angel Reese and LSU’s visit to Coppin State in December was a hot ticket.

Young fans scream for the star at the Stephen Curry Baltimore Showcase Live at UMBC in August. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

But, at the sport’s highest levels, Baltimore could use some kind of standard-bearer. Reese is a star, and her brother Julian is one of the top players at Maryland. But this “basketball town” could use an injection. It seems likely that the city’s DI college programs — Towson, UMBC, Morgan State, Loyola and Coppin State — could miss the men’s and women’s NCAA tournament (in fairness, the 14-12 Greyhounds women are second place in the Patriot League, the best conference position of any local team).

Even though players from the area, such as Toronto’s Immanuel Quickley (Havre de Grace) and Houston’s Cam Whitmore (Odenton) are having NBA success, Scott and I agreed that Anthony’s retirement felt like a big loss for the city (even though Anthony represented New York as much as Baltimore).

“He carried Baltimore on his back,” Scott said. “It was great to see that maturation to when he first came into the league – as a father, as a businessman, everything he did. It shows young men and young women what they can do with this game and beyond this game.”

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On that front — showing young men and women what’s possible — Scott believes the CIAA tournament has the potential for significant impact. Scott garnered mixed reactions when The Baltimore Sun reported last year that his office spent $30,000 on tickets to the tournament, in essence helping subsidize the event while also hosting it.

A spokesman for the mayor’s office says the tickets are distributed through Recreation & Parks and the city’s schools, churches and youth groups to get kids to the games. Scott himself said it’s valuable exposure to kids who may grow up dreaming of playing pro basketball but haven’t considered the breadth of options for a more attainable goal: using hoops to gain a college education.

The Bowie State men’s and women’s programs have six players from the city and more from the Greater Baltimore region. Even though the Bulldogs aren’t strictly a Baltimore team, they’re likely to be the home crowd favorites — and Scott says they could help some of the kids see what they can do with their basketball careers.

“I don’t care whether it’s DI, DII, DIII,” Scott said, “a free education — that’s all that matters to me, and that’s what I want to continue to see, how is it impacting these young people and their families’ lives.”

It seems apparent, however, that even if Baltimore continues to host the CIAA tournament past 2025, that can’t be the biggest ambition for our basketball-loving town. It can take years to prepare bids for tournaments, an aggressive administrative process, and it requires vetting of everything from transportation to hotels and other resources needed to put on a high-level event. In other words, it might take time.

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A reasonable starting point could be hosting the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference tournament, which is taking place in Norfolk, Virginia, in mid-March. Having a home-friendly venue for Morgan State and Coppin State would be a step forward for CFG Arena, as would getting the sports world to see Baltimore as the basketball town Scott believes it to be.

Make no mistake: Scott and the city want the CIAA to feel celebrated and welcome here. But Scott also understands that hosting the CIAA tournament should be an opening step to even bigger basketball events.

“I give the CIAA credit. They understood and saw the potential before other people did,” he said. “Hopefully, people see this tournament is growing every year and say, ‘Hey, Baltimore is a place that you cannot overlook.’ … After that investment in the CFG Arena, we can host pretty much anything.”

The facilities are there. The interest is there. Basketball fans have to hope this is a shot Scott, and the city, can make.

This column has been updated to correct the spelling of Edmondson-Westside High School.

Kyle joined The Baltimore Banner in 2023 as a sports columnist. He previously covered the L.A. Lakers for The Orange County Register and myriad sports at The Salt Lake Tribune. He’s a Mt. Hebron High and University of Maryland alum.

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