It's 30 minutes before game time, and Rodney Elliott is busy signing basketballs, programs and just about everything thrust in his direction.

"If they're from Baltimore, they're all cool," Elliott says of the group.

He can't possibly accommodate everyone, but before turning away he tells the kids, "I'll sign some more after the game, too."

Professional basketball returned to Baltimore in grand style before a sellout crowd of 9,000 Friday night. For the first time since Abe Pollin took the NBA Baltimore Bullets to Landover in the early 1970s, fans in Charm City had a professional basketball team to call its own.

It didn't matter that the Baltimore BayRunners are a minor league team, one of eight members of the new International Basketball Association. The fans at Baltimore Arena gave the players a major league greeting for their opener against the Trenton Shooting Stars, and the athletes responded with a solid effort.

Following a lavish pregame ceremony that included smoke, a marching band and fireworks, the players went to work, with Trenton winning, 107-95. Minority owner Cal Ripken and Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis participated in the ceremonial first tip. Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke also was in attendance, as was IBL chief operating officer Art Cipriani.

Elliott, who played high school ball in Baltimore before starring for the University of Maryland, flashed a wide smile for the fans during his impromptu autograph session. That's the theme of the league--give the people a good show in a friendly atmosphere for a decent price.


Brazil Under-17 Repeats

After playing 120 minutes without a goal in Auckland, New Zealand, Brazil beat Australia, 8-7, in a penalty kick shootout to became the first team to win consecutive under-17 world soccer championships.

Ghana, beaten by Brazil in the semifinals, beat the United States, 2-0, in the third-place match. The Americans, who won 24 straight games before the semifinal loss to Australia, went home without a medal, but Landon Donovan was chosen player of the tournament.


Cuba Wins, U.S. Loses Cuba, last year's World League champion, beat winless Tunisia, 25-18, 22-25, 25-23, 26-24, improving to 7-0 in the men's volleyball World Cup in Osaka. Russia, a day after losing to South Korea, defeated Argentina, 25-20, 25-17, 25-19, for a 6-1 record. The United States lost to Spain, 25-22, 21-25, 25-21, 25-21, dropping to 5-2. But the Americans remained in contention for a Sydney Olympic berth that goes to the top three finishers of the tournament.


Greek Sets Record

Akakios Kakiashvilis of Greece set a world record in the snatch (414 pounds) and won all three gold medals in the men's 207-pound class yesterday at the World Weightlifting Championships in Piraeus, Greece.

The women's competition ended with China's Ding Meiyuan setting two world records and winning three gold medals. Competing in the over 165-pound category, Ding lifted 347 pounds, breaking the world record in the clean-and-jerk.

Her victory helped China's women finish with 18 medals, 9 golds, and 530 points. The Chinese were followed by Taiwan, Bulgaria, Thailand, Nigeria and the United States--the top six countries in the team competition earning places for four lifters each in the 2000 Olympics.


Russian Wins Two Golds

Russian Nina Jivanevskaia won gold medals in the 50-meter and 200-meter women's backstroke on the opening day of the FINA World Cup meet in Rio de Janeiro.

Scott Tucker of Seminole, Fla., was the only gold medalist for the United States, winning the 100-meter individual medley in 56.44 seconds.


McGillis Sidelined

Philadelphia defenseman Dan McGillis will be sidelined at least two weeks with a broken right foot. McGillis was injured in the Flyers' 4-1 loss Nov. 22 to Tampa Bay after blocking a shot by the Lightning's Chris Gratton.

Obituary'40s Olympian Dead Gordon Wren, the only American to qualify for four Olympic skiing events and an early official of the Steamboat Ski Area, died of cancer at his home in Steamboat Springs, Colo, Thursday. He was 80. Wren had qualified for the Olympics in 1940, but when the games were interrupted by World War II, he joined the Army and served in the 10th Mountain Division.

At the 1948 Winter Games at St. Moritz, Switzerland, Wren placed second in combined jumping and fifth in special jumping.

CAPTION: Akakios Kakiashvilis of Greece sets mark (414 pounds) in snatch competition in world championships.