Poets' Booth finds own bright lights LITTLE COUSIN, BIG STAR

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Donta's little cousin.

For Keith Booth, those three words were a label he never could seem to shake. He picked it up years ago, when he began tagging along with his cousin, Donta Bright. It stuck with him through last season, when, side by side, the cousins helped lead Dunbar High School to a national title.

No matter what he did, how much he accomplished, Booth always was Donta's little cousin.

"That's what everybody used to call me," Booth said. "I got no recognition at all. Everybody would talk about Donta, and I'd think, 'I'd like to be just like that.' "

Bright, who is a year older, was The Baltimore Sun Player of the Year as a senior last season, and he is sitting out this year as a Proposition 48 freshman at the University of Massachusetts. Booth and Bright are extremely close.

"I've always been known as Donta's little cousin, and I had no problem with that, because he's a great player," Booth said. "But I just thought it was time that people knew me as Keith Booth."

As the best player on one of the nation's highest-profile basketball teams, Booth is finding out that there is no longer an identity crisis.

College recruiters long have known him as Keith Booth. Practically every big-time college basketball program in the country has addressed letters to him, letters that pack a 120-pound box in his bedroom.

Opposing high school coaches long have known him as Keith Booth, for not just anybody can post the Magic-like numbers of 24.1 points, 9.1 rebounds and 9.4 assists per game.

Now, everybody knows who Keith Booth is. People shout his name when he's with friends at his favorite hangouts, the Inner Harbor and the Gallery. He can't go to a movie without someone approaching. And a simple walk from Dunbar to his home in the Highlandtown section of East Baltimore typically results in his being stopped by strangers -- adults and kids -- who just want to talk. Just want to touch him.

So how does it feel not to have to stand in anyone's shadow?

"Sometimes," Booth said, pausing, "sometimes it's hard to be Keith Booth."

Comfortable on court

The difficulty of being Keith Booth is the attention he receives off the court. Most times on the court, Booth is very much at ease -- and very much in command.

A year ago, the Poets had three marquee players in Booth, Bright and Michael Lloyd, but there is just one go-to guy on this season's squad. That has put a tremendous amount of pressure on Booth, a 6-foot-7, 210-pound forward, as was evident in last weekend's Charm City Classic, where opponents focused their defenses on him and limited the All-American to 15 points in two games.

The only starter returning from last season's national championship team, Booth can appear forced to maintain Dunbar's prominence almost single-handedly.

"This is a team, but since we lost [Lloyd and Bright], I know I have to step up in big games," Booth said. "I take it as the coaches and my teammates having confidence in me. It's well-deserved -- I've worked hard both on and off the court to get to this point."

That point is a long way from 10 years ago when, Booth said, "I couldn't lay the ball in, I couldn't play defense, I couldn't do anything." But Booth tagged along with Bright, who, at a young age, possessed the skills of a future star. So Booth's game began to catch up with his growing, lanky frame.

"By the time I got to the ninth grade," Booth said, "I knew I had a chance to be a good player."

That season, Booth was a key contributor off the bench for a team that finished 22-4. By the end of his sophomore season, he was an All-Metro player for a 27-1 team, averaging 14.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists in an effortless style that opened the eyes of recruiters. Last season, Booth was second on the team in scoring (19.5) and tops in rebounding (11.8) in helping the Poets to the national title.

This season, Booth has had to demonstrate even more of his skills. If Dunbar is having problems against the full-court press, he's the point man. If the Poets need low-post scoring, Booth gets the ball in the pivot. Need an assist? It's Booth who has the court savvy and experience to find the open man.

"[He's] one of the most versatile players in the country," said Bob Gibbons, who heads the All-Star Sports scouting service. "He literally can play all five positions. He's very much in control, and he makes great decisions."

Added Dunbar coach Pete Pompey: "The guy can do just so many things. He's going to be a great, great player on the next level."

In the spotlight

On the court, Booth can control the tempo, control an opposing player, even control a game.

Off the court, he has no control over how people react to his stardom.

"I was taking a driver's education test, and the teacher didn't know who I was," Booth said. "Apparently, she saw me on TV, and came back the next night and said: 'Is this the Keith Booth at Dunbar High School? Have I been teaching Keith Booth how to drive a car?' "

Booth finds himself always in the spotlight.

"You're in a glass house, you're a role model, so my goal is not to do something that I'm going to regret," Booth said. "It may not seem like it to me, but I know somebody's always watching me. I try to be real careful in what I do, because we're role models to these kids."

Especially the kids.

"I looked up to Reggie Lewis [of the Boston Celtics] and Muggsy [Bogues of the Charlotte Hornets] when I was younger, and I know kids look up to me in the same way," Booth said of two Dunbar alumni. "I get along with everybody. I'm down to earth.

"What would a little kid say if he came up to me to talk and I say I have to go?" Booth asked. "What's that going to do to that kid? When I walk home from school, I get approached by a lot of different people, some I don't even know. But I take the time to talk to everybody. That's just the way I am."

Adding fans

Booth's bandwagon picked up a lot of riders -- thanks to Manute Bol, the Philadelphia 76ers' 7-foot-7 center -- during the Urban Coalition basketball championship game last summer in Washington.

The Baltimore team that included the Dunbar contingent of Booth, Bogues, Sam Cassell (Florida State) and Kurk Lee (formerly of the New Jersey Nets) was cruising toward the title over a team that featured Bol, Sherman Douglas (Boston Celtics), Johnny Newman (Charlotte Hornets) and John Battle (Cleveland Cavaliers).

However, Booth's confidence was being worked over by Bol, who swatted away four of his shots.

But Booth got even in a way that would have made his favorite movie star, kick-butt artist Steven Seagal, proud.

"Muggsy told me not to get down, just to keep on challenging him," Booth said, smiling. "I filled the lane on the break with Muggsy, and he gave it up. I went for it and caught it."

First, there was complete silence. Then the gym erupted.

The high school kid had dunked on Manute.

"Everybody just went crazy," said Booth, who won the league's MVP award. "Somebody must have called home, because, by the time we drove back to Baltimore, everybody in the neighborhood knew."

But Booth wasn't caught up in the excitement, just as he never lost his cool during his frustrating performance in the Charm City Classic. For him, playing against the NBA stars was easier than playing in most of his high school games.

"Maybe because there's no expectations when I step on the court," Booth said. "I like playing with the older guys. No one expects anything from me."

High expectations

Booth realizes that the expectations for him will be high at whatever college he attends. Out of the boxful of letters, the list has been narrowed to four: Maryland, Duke, Kentucky and Towson State.

Towson State?

"It's just obvious to consider Towson State," Booth said. "I know [former Dunbar star] Terrance Alexander, and I've known the coaches for a while."

Booth is hopeful he'll get the opportunity to play Division I basketball next season. An honor roll student, Booth still has yet to score the 700 on his Scholastic Aptitude Test that would allow him to play as a freshman.

"By the end of the season, I'll get it," said Booth. "I'm taking an SAT prep course now, and the next time I feel I'll get it, without a doubt."

But, until he gets it, Booth faces the possibility of not playing major-college basketball next season -- a fate that befell Bright and Lloyd (who's at San Jacinto Junior College) this season.

"Not playing is in the back of my mind," Booth said. "Every player dreams of playing college ball as soon as possible. I don't want to sit out. But if that's what it has to be, then I'll have to do that."

Bright's a big fan

As Booth was beginning to heat up in helping Dunbar overcome a 15-point deficit against St. Anthony's of New Jersey last weekend, perhaps Booth's biggest booster was seated in the front row, no more than 30 feet away from the Dunbar bench.

Although the Poets eventually lost the game to the nation's No. 4 team, the person who cast the shadow over Booth -- Bright -- looked on admiringly at his cousin.

"He's a Billy Owens/Jamal Mashburn-type player, because he can do so much," Bright said. "He did a lot last year. He played five positions and took a lot of pressure off me and Mike because he was open a lot."

And what about the emergence of his younger cousin from Bright's shadow?

"Some people will tell you that he's a better player than me, and just like he learned from me, I've learned from him," Bright said. "I never thought he was in my shadow.

"People would always say, 'Donta's little cousin,' " Bright added. "But he was always a ballplayer to me."

Booth's stats

A look at Keith Booth's statistics since he became a starter for Dunbar in his sophomore season:

.. .. .. .. .. Points .. .. .. Rebounds

Season . .. .. per game ... .. per game

1990-91 ... .. 14.2 . .. .. .. 5.5

1991-92 ... .. 19.5 . .. .. . 11.8

1992-93 ... .. 24.1 . .. .. .. 9.1

Where are they now?

Where the senior members of last year's All-Metro basketball team are attending school (*-not playing basketball):

Player, H.S. .. .. .. .. .. .. College

Rodney Black, Carver ... .. .. None

Donta Bright, Dunbar ... .. .. Mass.*

Kwame Evans, Southern

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. George Washington

Bernard Hopkins, Overlea

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Hagerstown JC

Cyrus Jones, Dunbar

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Connors State (Okla.)

Michael Lloyd, Dunbar

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. San Jacinto JC

Jermaine Porter, Walbrook

.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. Garrett CC

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