St. Frances' Gray has Terps courting E. Baltimore again


The men are standing in the corner in the basement gym of the Madison Square Recreation Center, on Biddle Street. It is late in the afternoon. A high school team is practicing.

"That one there, the one with the purple pants," William Wells is saying on the other side of the court, nodding toward the men, "that one is Minnesota. And that one there, the one in the green sweater, that's James Madison. Haven't seen them before today."

Wells is the coach at St. Frances, the small, all-black Catholic high school that happens to have the city's best player this year, a tough, versatile forward named Devin Gray.

Everyone on the team is accustomed to the sight of the men in their brightly colored sweaters and slacks, standing in the corner at practice. They have been there all year. It is what happens when a Devin Gray is on your team.

"And that one over there," Wells is saying, nodding his head at a man in tan slacks, "that one there is Maryland."

It is no secret: The Terps have applied the full-court press on Gray. They want him badly. His response? He is thinking about it. It is too soon, he hasn't even looked at all his mail yet, but he admits, "I do like Maryland. And a couple more."

He is standing in a gym in the heart of East Baltimore, a couple of blocks from Dunbar High School, a part of the city in which people still gather to complain that Bob Wade got a raw deal at College Park.

When Wade went down a couple of years ago, the word was that no sweet-shooting kid from this part of town would ever again wind up at Maryland, that the coaches and people and parents would scream.

It happened once before. Ernie Graham went to Maryland from Dunbar and scored a lot of points, but he neither got his degree nor made the NBA, and in East Baltimore the word was that his considerable talent went wasted. Lefty Driesell never got another Baltimore kid.

William Wells saw it all happen. He is the coach at St. Frances now, but he has also run the Madison Square center for 22 years. It is one of those places where the key almost touches the circle, a place where players congregate in all seasons, the game tough and fast and not for pretenders.

"We had Skip Wise in here," Wells says. "Ernie Graham. Reggie Williams. Muggsy. Duane Ferrell. You name it. There have been some unbelievable games in this gym."

Wells helped them make their college decisions. He watched Maryland's scouts come in the door, then back out and on to Biddle Street, disheartened. He learned the politics, the hard angles. These last few years he heard the word being passed around, that it was happening all over again.

"A lot of people around here were very mad at Maryland," he says. "A lot of people think Bob got a real bad deal."

But along comes Devin Gray, the first sweet-shooting kid from East Baltimore since Bob Wade left Maryland, and suddenly we find out that the word being passed around is just a lot of talk, the loud, empty chatter of people who have no say.

It doesn't matter whether Gray actually winds up in College Park -- as yet he does not have the SAT score to beat Prop 48, although he is close, and has a couple more chances. The point is he is not opposed to Maryland.

The symbolism is slam-dunk obvious. "What happened to Bob is not going to affect any of the kids today," Wells says. "They have their own lives to lead. They want to go where they're going to play, and where they can get a degree."

Out on the court in the tiny gym in the basement on Biddle, Gray is dominating practice. He is strong, agile, skilled -- add another name to the list of luminous Madison Square graduates.

"You have to look out for yourself," he says during a break in practice, agreeing with his coach's assessment. "I know Bob Wade, and I was upset [when he left Maryland] like a lot of other people. But Coach Wells told me it shouldn't affect my situation. I listened to that. That was right."

That was a piece of original thinking. Wells heard voices all around him complaining about Maryland, but when he had a chance to make a real difference, he made sure his kid gave the school a fair shot.

Now he smiles about it. "I'm going to catch some flak," he says, "but I have to do what is best for Devin. You just can't ignore the fact that Maryland is a big-time program. The only thing is whether they'll do a good job academically."

Wells sees Bob Wade all the time now. Wade, rebounding, runs the recreation centers for the city. He is around the gyms a lot, still an icon in the part of town where Biddle Street runs. But he is not a factor in Devin Gray's world.

"This is the truth: Bob hasn't said a negative word about any school," Wells says. "I hear the talk, people saying he's pushing kids in this direction or that direction. It's a bad rap. He isn't doing that here. His name has not come up in this. This is about Devin Gray. Period."

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