It's called The Box, a sweltering, dimly lit gymnasium with a hard-court floor smudged dark brown, two half-moon-shaped backboards and four brick walls.
This is where David Wingate began a basketball journey, reaching each step on a path that stretched from the Cecil-Kirk Recreation Center in East Baltimore, to Dunbar High School, to Georgetown University, to the National Basketball Association.
In September, Wingate was on the verge of securing his financial future, coming within 48 hours of signing a three-year,$2.25 million contract with the San Antonio Spurs. But, now, he is back at The Box, practicing alone for games he may never play. His career hangs in the balance. And so does his life.
Wingate faces rape charges in Maryland and Texas. The contract offer from the Spurs is withdrawn. What could have beenthe best year of his life has turned into the worst.
"I'm mad about what is going on," Wingate said. "But I just have to take it one step at a time."
Last week, in his first interview since being indicted in September, Wingate declared his innocence and vowed to resumehis career after the resolution of his legal problems.
"I wouldn't be stupid enough to jeopardize my career," Wingate said in the presence of his Maryland attorney, Phil Armstrong.
Wingate is charged with second-degree rape, battery and a fourth-degree sexual offense for an alleged attack against a Baltimore teen-ager during a party at his Columbia apartment Sept. 16. Three days later, a 22-year-old San Antonio woman filed a civil suit against Wingate for an alleged rape that occurred in June. Wingate, Joel Mendiola, 27, and Edward Saunders, 23, later were indicted for sexual assault. If convicted as charged, Wingate faces up to 20 years in prison in each criminal case. Both criminal trials are expected to begin early next year.
"I can't change what people think," Wingate said. "As long as I have the truth, I'm not bothered."
In a court of law, Wingate is presumed innocent. In a professional sport, where image is nearly everything, innocence must be proven. He is 27 years old, in his prime, at 6 feet 5, 185 pounds. Although he is technically a restricted free agent, no team wants him.
"You understand the reaction people have had," San Antonio coach Larry Brown said. "I couldn't think of anything worse in the society today than when something like this happens. I have daughters. It is terrible what goes on today. Then, when you're a professional athlete, with what the NBA is trying to project, it's a sad scenario."
Even the father of the alleged rape victim in Howard County has expressed sympathy for what the charges have done to Wingate's life and career.
"It's so bad to see young black guys ruin their lives," said the father, who became acquainted with Wingate several months before the alleged attack occurred. "He needs to straighten out his life. I want him to get help. He needs it. He has a chance for a great career. But . . . how could he do this?"
Just who is David Wingate? The story is filled with contradictions. A hard worker on the court whose off-court partying bothered at least one landlord. A splendid athlete whose drinking troubled one NBA executive. A young man strong enough to adapt to the cloistered environment created by Bob Wade at Dunbar and John Thompson at Georgetown, yet apparently unprepared for the carnival that is the NBA. A devoted son who idolized his late mother and who now stands accused of rape.
"Everyone is not perfect," said Tyrone Bogues, Wingate's former Dunbar teammate who plays for the Charlotte Hornets. "Until the judge or jury decides what happens, you've got to keep an open mind. I know David. He was a good guy in high school. People can change. But he didn't change that much. He was a guy . . . his dreams came true.
"Hard road to NBA
The trip from The Box to the NBA was difficult. He was the gangly kid, the youngest of seven brothers and sisters, raised in a Baltimore rowhouse on a narrow residential street in Govans, a working-class neighborhood revitalized by a shopping strip along York Road. They called him Turtle because of his flat, misshapen nose. Opponents laughed at him. Fans pointed at him. One game, the abuse was so bad, Wingate's Cecil-Kirk recreation league coach, Anthony Lewis, pulled him off the court and said, "Listen to me, some day these people will look up to you."
It was the jump shot that turned heads. A bit awkward, but oh, so accurate. He used the backboard like a percussionist playing the tympani. Winning intrigued him.
L"Five guys, working together, doing the right thing," he said.
Playing for the right people. There was Wade at Dunbar and Thompson at Georgetown. Both declined to comment for this article because of Wingate's pending litigation. They are tough, uncompromising men, father figures who acted as Wingate's guides to basketball's fast lane. At Dunbar, Wade inspected prospective fans and recruits with a wary gaze, always protective of his players. At Georgetown, Thompson maintained an image as a stern disciplinarian who enjoyed closed practices and a boot-camp atmosphere. The reality was slightly different, as Thompson provided enough space to let his players succeed or fail on their own.
"When you came out of that Georgetown program, you became stronger mentally," Wingate said. "You were taught about life after basketball. Coach Thompson kept you on your toes."
During his senior season at Dunbar in 1981-82, Wingate led the Poets to a 28-0 record and the runner-up position behind Calvert Hall for a mythical national high school championship. Four players from that Dunbar team -- Wingate, Bogues, Reggie Williams and Reggie Lewis -- eventually went to the pros.
At Georgetown, there was a 1984 National Collegiate Athletic Association title to celebrate, a degree in sociology to receive. The Hoyas used an aggressive, bullying style. But behind closed doors, the players danced before games and gathered 'round to hear Wingate tell jokes. He was the team cut-up, the player who did the best Thompson imitation and pulled the silliest pranks. Wingate enjoyed walking around airplanes, tapping people on the shoulders and motioning that another passenger wanted their attention.
"He is the funniest person I ever met," said former Georgetown guard Michael Jackson, who spent three years as Wingate's road roommate. "Sometimes, I'd have to get away from him, I hurt so much from laughing. But I remember when I separated my shoulder as a sophomore, I was lying in the bed in the hospital, and the first guy I saw was Wingate. Smiling."
But there also was heartbreak. Wingate's mother, Mattie, died in 1984. She was 54 and had spent nearly the last third of her life in a wheelchair, battling multiple sclerosis. Although she apparently took great joy in her son's athletic career, she rarely had the opportunity to see him play. But she was an inspiration to her son. Wingate still can recall vividly the first time she saw him play, when she was wheeled into the Baltimore Arena to witness his final game at Dunbar.
"My mom was the one who carried the big stick in the house," Wingate said. "She set down the rules."
Even now, Wingate finds it difficult to discuss his mother's death.
"You just know not to ask him about it," said Williams, a member of the Spurs who has played seven years with Wingate.
After four seasons at Georgetown, Wingate was pegged a borderline NBA player, selected by the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round (44th pick overall) of the 1986 college draft. But with his speed and savvy, he earned a place on the roster.
Progress and distractions
He made steady progress through two seasons. A 28-point burst against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls was his highlight. But injuries and off-court distractions eventually sidetracked him during his third season.
John Nash, who was the general manager of the 76ers before joining the Washington Bullets this year, said the team received complaints of all-night parties from Wingate's Philadelphia landlord. The club also became disenchanted with Wingate's work habits.
"We knew that he drank, and we knew he had a tendency to stay out late," Nash said. "We talked to him about this. He indicated he was going to keep things under control and focus on his career, and that what he was doing wasn't anything unusual for a 23- or 24-year-old guy. He frequented clubs and associated with a lot of young women, which, in and of itself, is not wrong.
"It was a case of making sure he was where he was to be on time. We had more of a problem with David just being responsible, making his appointments on time, be they therapy for injuries or practice. David was one who would arrive at the last minute or a few minutes late, and in our league, you don't do that."
Wingate said he grew tired of therapy to heal a damaged knee, which eventually required two operations. He also defended his choice of friends, whom he had known since growing up in Baltimore. But he maintained he adapted to the NBA lifestyle, a non-stop road trip through airports and arenas.
"I had the same friends my first year, when nothing was said, as I had in my second year," he said. "After I got hurt, that's when people picked out problems."
In August 1989, Wingate and Maurice Cheeks were traded to the Spurs for Chris Welp and Johnny Dawkins. Brown, the Spurs coach, said one of the keys to the trade was that it enabled Wingate to leave behind longtime friends in Baltimore.
"When we got him, Mo Cheeks said David was a great kid who had to get away from Baltimore and his friends," Brown said. "When he was in Philadelphia, he'd go down to Baltimore, and Mo said he didn't think it was a good environment for him."
Wingate thrived in the Southwest, his health restored, his attitude bolstered by an association with Brown. He averaged 6.8 points in 78 games, becoming the team's top reserve guard.
"I didn't see the best player in the world, but I thought he could play," Brown said. "I saw his attitude, his competitiveness. I thought he was going to help us."
Wingate was popular off the court. Spurs chairman Red McCombs said, "He was one of our more dedicated players in making numerous appearances throughout the community."
At last, Wingate had found a home in the NBA. He wasn't a star, but, in this league, even the co-stars become millionaires. Last summer, he became a restricted free agent. The Spurs, a team on the brink of contending for the league championship, held his rights and made him an offer: $2.25 million over three years. In 1990-91, he would make more than $600,000. Wingate was delighted. He purchased a champagne-colored Jaguar.
And, then, on Sunday, Sept. 16, Wingate, his nephew Gregory Lamont Green, and a friend, Aaron Webb, drove into Baltimore to the home of Green's girlfriend. The girlfriend and her teen-age sister accompanied the men to Wingate's apartment on the 11300 block of Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. They were going to have a party.
"The girls had been over there several times before," said their father. "That's why I trusted them. The car came by the house. The boys blew the horn. And the girls left."
By noon Monday, Wingate was being questioned by Howard County police on suspicion of second-degree rape. By Wednesday, the day he was supposed to sign a contract with the Spurs, Wingate was facing another charge of rape in San Antonio.
Feeling wronged, frustrated
"You never once heard of me being in anything bad," Wingate said. "I never once did anything bad."
He sat in his attorney's office in Rockville, nearly three months after the alleged assault in Howard County. A police siren wailed in the background. Wingate was wearing brown loafers without socks, dark brown slacks and a brown paisley shirt opened at the collar to reveal a gold chain and crucifix.
He chose his words carefully and frequently turned to his attorney for guidance. Soft-spoken, Wingate viewed himself as wronged and became frustrated at times while defending his behavior in the Howard County incident.
From his first encounter with Howard County police, in which he submitted a four-page, handwritten statement detailing his version of the incident, Wingate has maintained he had consensual intercourse with the 17-year-old, a high school senior. He said he had known her for several months, and the alleged victim's older sister for several years.
"If I knew it was anything wrong, I wouldn't have done it," Wingate said.
According to the alleged victim, she, her sister, Wingate, Green and Webb arrived at the apartment in the Clary's Crossing apartment complex at about 6:30 p.m., and began drinking beer and tequila. The victim reported drinking heavily and becoming sick. She then went into an empty bedroom and lay down. Wingate allegedly came into the room, lay next to her and began to fondle her.
The girl said she tried to resist, but "was so drunk and felt so out of it that she was helpless." Her sister then allegedly pushed her way into the bedroom past Green and Webb, and found Wingate lying on top of the victim with his pants down.
The sisters left the apartment and waited by a nearby shopping center for police. An examination of the alleged victim by a physician confirmed sexual contact. But, according to court documents, her blood alcohol level was .03, well under the .07 considered to be driving under the influence of alcohol in Maryland.
The father of the sisters said he believes drinking is at the root of Wingate's problems.
"Drinking changes his personality," the father said. "He was well-mannered. I really think alcohol played a strong factor in the situation."
Wingate said he never has had a drinking problem and never has taken illegal drugs.
"People know I'm not a bad guy," he said.
Once charges were filed in Howard County, another rape charge surfaced in San Antonio. In what local prosecutors called a "startlingly similar" case, a 22-year-old woman said she was raped by Wingate, Edward Saunders and Joel Mendiola June 23 and in the early morning hours of June 24. The woman alleged she encountered Wingate and Saunders, a former St. Mary's University basketball player, while the men were drinking rounds of tequila shots at a local bar.
The woman said she was invited to Wingate's home, and while en route, became ill and asked to be let out of the car. Wingate allegedly accompanied the woman, who said he then raped her by the side of the road while she was ill. The victim alleged that later, after being assisted to a bedroom at Wingate's home, she was awakened several times during the night to find men having sex with her.
According to the woman's attorney, Marynell Maloney, San Antonio police blithely dismissed her client's case. A civil suit was filed before Wingate received a criminal indictment.
"You have to understand San Antonio," Maloney said. "The Spurs are the only game in town."
Maloney said her client, suffering from mental anguish, dropped out of college after the alleged attack in San Antonio. The father of the Baltimore teen-ager said his daughter has difficulty sleeping at night and concentrating in school, but still plans to enroll in college next fall.
In a bad position
Many of Wingate's friends and former teammates, while supporting his claims of innocence, say he placed himself in a precarious situation. They said that athletes often can emerge as targets in legal cases.
"I don't think it's that difficult to happen because you're in the limelight," Jackson said. "People want to be with you. People like to be associated with people in the know. That's why you see athletes who are reclusive. You've got to be careful."
Bob Bass, general manager of the Spurs, said: "There are some decisions a player has to make, and evidently, David didn't make the correct one.
"People will take a piece of you. They'll take your time and energy. Ladies will give you temptations. You have to make the right decisions. It's a glamorous life. A player has to decide to be the best and can't let people pull at him."
Wingate's Texas attorney, Gerald Goldstein, said, "Athletes are looked at as role models with deep pockets."
Wingate's lawyers said they have been approached by representatives for the alleged victims suggesting the cases could be dropped if Wingate paid money as part of an out-of-court settlement. The father of the Baltimore teen-ager denied making any such proposal, and representatives of the San Antonio woman could not be reached for comment.
Wingate met with the 17-year-old Baltimore girl the day before Thanksgiving and apologized "for his inappropriate behavior" in having sexual relations with her. But he did not admit to rape.
For now, Wingate is a man without a team and without a job. His legal fees already have reached $150,000, and he received a settlement from the Spurs, who will pay him a portion of the deferred compensation in his previous contract. His nephew Green smashed up Wingate's Jaguar and injured a mother and child; Green faces drunken-driving charges.
Even if Wingate is acquitted of rape charges, or an out-of-court settlement is reached, it appears unlikely the Spurs will re-sign him.
McCombs noted with relief that the team had received only a few angry letters after the incident and no fans had shown up at the team's home games bearing abusive placards.
"Of course, we wish this had never happened," he said.
"David was the most popular player on the team," Larry Brown said. "I don't know how many times it has been written and said, but they miss him. He did a great job for us and, as far as I know, he is a model citizen. You have to understand, none of us talk about him coming back. That is important to understand. That is incidental. What we want to see is David get through this and start his life again."
Wingate practices and waits. A man who made his living on a basketball court may have his future decided in a court of law.
"I think I'll be back playing," he said. "This could happen to anyone."