As vendettas go, the one carried by the East Baltimore basketball community against the University of Maryland is an all-timer. It's bad enough grown men can't bury the past. It's a disgrace they might try influencing the future of an innocent kid named Keith Booth.
Guaranteed, they will. Booth, Dunbar High's star forward, already is one of the nation's most heavily recruited players, and he's just completing his junior year. At the moment, he says he's leaning toward either Maryland or Duke.
Any other kid would just choose.
Not one from East Baltimore.
No, an East Baltimore kid has to hear it first. About how Ernest Graham was exploited and mistreated. About how Bob Wade was humiliated and fired. Both started at Dunbar. Graham played at Maryland from 1978-81. Wade coached there from 1986-89.
When does the statute of limitations expire?
The issue is not whether Graham and Wade were wronged, the issue is Booth. The first time Dunbar coach Pete Pompey walked into his room, he couldn't help but notice all the Maryland posters. Booth still has the posters. Len Bias was one of his idols.
"I've been a Maryland fan since I was 10 years old," Booth says. "Watching Len Bias and Keith Gatlin throw the alley oop -- that's how we run it down at Dunbar. I like [coach] Gary Williams' style of play, the way they run up and down. I'm considering Maryland heavily."
Graham, however, was the last Dunbar player to attend Maryland on a basketball scholarship, and that was 15 years ago. The community anger over his failure to graduate and his stormy relationship with former coach Lefty Driesell simmers to this day.
Here's the latest twist: Graham,now 32, apparently wants to complete his degree. He made his desire known to Williams in a meeting arranged by Pompey at Dunbar in early April. The meeting resulted from a previous conversation between the two coaches.
Williams pointed Graham to the appropriate counselors in Maryland's "Academic Support for Returning Athletes" program. Graham was advised of his standing -- Pompey says he's two years short of graduation -- and apparently was preparing to re-enroll.
Only he never did. Graham apparently qualified for the program, even though it's designed primarily for former athletes who left campus a few credits short of graduation. But Pompey says Graham left for the Dominican Republic to play professionally instead.
What happened? Graham refused comment before departing, but Pompey indicates he was upset that Maryland would not provide housing. Graham apparently wanted to live in College Park with his wife and child while he worked toward his degree.
It's an unusual request, but Pompey argues it's an unusual case.
"They ought to give him what they didn't give him 10 years ago," the Dunbar coach says, "an education."
Of course, no one held a gun to Graham's head at Maryland, saying, "Don't go to class."
But Graham had other goals then. He scored 44 points against State on Dec. 20, 1978, a school record that still stands. He later became one of four Maryland players selected in the 1981 NBA draft, along with Albert King, Buck Williams and Greg Manning.
"When you're here, your No. 1 priority is going to school," says Manning, who is now executive director of the M Club, an alumni organization of former Maryland athletes. "Sometimes these -Z guys have a hard time realizing that until they're 15 years out. But the responsibility falls on the individual."
Manning is correct in theory, but the returning athletes program was created -- three years ago, separate from the athletic department -- to address the reality. According to Dr. Jerry Lewis, director of Maryland's academic achievement programs, eight former athletes are currently enrolled.
Financial aid is available to such students, and Lewis' office can provide further assistance from its own limited budget when that aid falls short. In return, the former athletes participate in an outreach program, where they receive credit for speak
ing at elementary schools.
Larry Gibson, another former Dunbar and Maryland player, also has shown interest in the program, but he, too, has yet to enroll. The timing of all this no doubt infuriates Williams. Graham never showed the same interest in his degree when Wade was coach at Maryland. He was flourishing as a professional player in South America then.
Meanwhile, Keith Booth is caught in the middle.
Most high school kids listen to their coach.
And Pompey wants Maryland to take care of Graham.
"It's not animosity I feel," Pompey says. "But something ought to be done. It will affect my advice to Keith, yes, but it's not going to affect Keith's decision, or any other kid from Dunbar or Baltimore's decision.
"I don't blame Gary Williams for any of this," Pompey says. "It's not any of his doing. The onus is on the University of Maryland, not the basketball program."
Yet, Williams is the one who suffers.
"I want Baltimore to be a part of this school so bad," he says. "You don't know what it would mean to me to get a great player from the inner city of Baltimore to come to this school."
The good news is, Booth just might. He's independent-minded for a high school kid, and thoughtful too. His grade-point average at Dunbar is 3.2 out of 4.0. He scored 640 in his first try at the SAT, but he has a $200 bet with his mother that he'll get the 700 required for admittance to Maryland and other ACC schools.
"The decision I make is going to be between me and my parents,"Booth says. "What happened in the past -- the Bob Wade situation, the Ernie Graham situation -- that's in the past. I feel I've got to do what's good for me and my family.
"Of course there's going to be some people around the neighborhood and the basketball court telling you, 'Don't go to Maryland.' But why hold it against Gary Williams? He seems like a nice guy. He doesn't deserve to be treated like that."
Booth deserves it even less.
End the vendetta.
Let the kid be.