`NEW England,'' says Dick Johnson, ``may be to sports what Hollywood is to entertainment.''
Other places have their proud traditions, too, he's quick to add. But only this six-state region has contributed so much to the sports legacy of the United States: the first great road race (Boston Marathon), the first football rivalry (Harvard-Yale), the first intercollegiate sports event of any kind (the Yale-Harvard crew race), arguably the best hitter in baseball history (Ted Williams), basketball's first professional dynasty (the Boston Celtics), hockey legend Bobby Orr - to cite a few.
So on the premise that such traditions deserve to be properly commemorated under one roof, Johnson became curator of a one-of-a-kind exhibition here called the Sports Museum of New England. The state-of-the-art facility celebrated its grand opening in April and is rapidly building an enthusiastic following (admission: $6 for adults, $4.50 for children).
Other sports exhibits are larger or better-known, such as the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., and the Professional Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, but this museum claims to be the only one in the US dedicated to all sports.
One of the first items that greets a visitor here is the Formula One race car owned and driven by actor Paul Newman at Connecticut's Lime Rock raceway. Nearby is a working exhibit of candlepin bowling, a sport unique to New England.
``Sports has a great power,'' Johnson says. ``The idea is to use that power and make this a place that would captivate even a nonsports fan.''
Despite its location smack in the middle of the busy and architecturally enticing CambridgeSide Galleria shopping mall, the Sports Museum is up against some stiff competition for visitors. Only a home-run's distance away is the world-famous Boston Museum of Science. Boston also boasts the Museum of Fine Arts and the New England Aquarium. And that doesn't count the Children's Museum, Computer Museum, or John F. Kennedy Presidential Library - nor any of the stops on the city's famous Freedom Trail, such as the USS Constitution or Paul Revere's house.
Undaunted, Johnson says the Sports Museum will build its reputation the same way more established institutions do - by approaching its subject seriously and by offering an outreach to the community. Side-by-side with life-size statues of Orr and basketball great Larry Bird is an exhibit on the sports history of women.
And the museum is striving to fill the gaps in its collection on the role of African-Americans in regional sports history. Freed slaves, or at least their sons, played football for Harvard as early as the 1890s, the curator says.
Most first-time visitors cluster around the museum's numerous ``interactive'' exhibits - among them a simulated game of catch with Red Sox All-Star pitcher Roger Clemens and one designed to show the difficulty of competing in the wheelchair division of the Boston Marathon.
Johnson characterizes a visit as a ``nutritious dessert.''
But museum personnel and Boston public-school spokesmen alike point with equal pride to the institution's deep and growing involvement in education. To help address the problem of at-risk children in Boston and other nearby communities, the museum sponsors or collaborates in eight projects promoting regular school attendance and communications skills. Chief among these is ASAP (Athlete/Student Achievement Pact), a program designed to pair middle-school students with local college athletes to teach such sports-related ideals as perseverance, teamwork, goal-setting, and conflict resolution.
These programs, says education director Cynthia Goff, succeed despite a stream of unfavorable revelations about star athletes and college programs.
``In a way,'' Mrs. Goff says, ``it can be very useful to find out that your heroes have feet of clay. Kids handle that. So many of them like ballplayers because they never grow up.''
``We've done a lot of collaborating with the business community and with the local cultural institutions,'' says assistant Boston School Superintendent Ken Caldwell. ``But in this case, the [Sports] Museum of [New Endland] was the one initiating contact with us. We've been pleased with the level of support and enthusiasm.''
Johnson says the museum is attempting to build a comprehensive year-round schedule of personal appearances by Boston and visiting professional athletes - as part of the educational outreach and to help increase attendance.
``After all,'' he says, ``they're sports fans, too. They understand that we're a natural repository for the legacy that they're creating.''
ONE of his problems as curator is that for the past several years private collectors have created an unprecedented boom in the demand for articles worn, used by, or otherwise related to sports greats. The demand has not only driven up the price of most collectibles, but also has shown no sign of abating.
That's not good news for sports museums and halls of fame that can afford to spend little, if any, money for acquisitions and must rely on the generosity of donors. The Sports Museum of New England is among these.
``Athletes have become as much cultural icons as Marilyn Monroe or James Dean,'' Johnson says. ``That does make it increasingly difficult to get hold of materials if the owners aren't willing to loan or donate them.''
Fortunately, says Johnson, many serious collectors enjoy sharing their prize memorabilia and ``sometimes they're willing to let us borrow [articles] once they've been properly insured, which actually increases their value to a degree.''
At the least, the curator says, the boom in sports-memorabilia collecting has unearthed volumes of important material whose existence wasn't previously known.