They grew up together in East Baltimore, first cousins and best friends. They played against each other in backyard games, using bottomed-out milk crates for baskets. They refined their skills together at the Oliver Recreation Center and later starred together at Dunbar High School.

Tomorrow night, Keith Booth and Donta Bright likely will meet up for the first time as collegiate players if -- or, more likely, when -- Maryland plays Massachusetts at the Springfield Civic Center in the championship game of the Abdow's Hall of Fame Classic.

Booth, a 6-foot-6 freshman forward for the Terrapins, and Bright, a 6-6 sophomore forward for the ninth-ranked Minutemen, are looking forward to this opportunity. More than a dozen of their relatives and friends are expected to make the trip north to watch.

"It's something I've looked forward to since it was scheduled [last summer]," said Booth, who first will have to help Maryland (6-1) beat Hofstra (1-6) in tonight's second opening-round game, following UMass (7-1) vs. Hartford (1-4).

"Me and Donta have talked about it a lot."

Said Bright: "It's for bragging rights back home."

Back home, they've been talking about it -- for years. It was Bright who introduced his younger cousin to the game. Back in those days, they used to play behind Booth's house at the corner of Patterson Park Avenue and Madison Street.

"They used to hang lights on the clothesline to play at night," recalled Norma Salmon, Booth's mother and the older sister of Bright's father, Carlton. "When it got late, I used to make Turk [Booth's nickname] come in and send Donta home. He could walk through our yard and be at his house."

When Bright was 9 and had played a year under Bucky Lee at the Oliver Rec, he brought his younger cousin with him. Booth was 8 and aspiring to be a football player. They were the only boys in their immediate families, but neither was a natural athlete.

"Neither one of us was very good," said Bright. "But we both stuck with it. We come from very athletic families, and we just outgrew everybody else."

Said Booth: "Being that he's a year older than me, it's not like he's my idol or anything, but I've learned a lot from him and I think he's learned some things from me. But that's what being a best friend is about."

After the two went to different grade schools and middle schools, they were reunited as Dunbar teammates when Booth made the varsity in ninth grade. By the time Bright was a senior and Booth was a junior, they, along with senior Michael Lloyd, led the Poets to an undefeated season and a mythical national championship.

Pete Pompey, who coached the team from 1986 through his suspension earlier this year, first saw Booth and Bright when they were "around 12 or 13, always playing with the older kids. Donta was the kind of player who could always get his shot off against bigger kids, while Turk was a great leader. He's never going to let anyone around him quit."

The academic score

But after that magical season at Dunbar, Booth and Bright went their separate, and disparate, ways. Though they had talked about playing together in college, the chance of that happening faded when Bright fell short on the academic requisites for NCAA freshman eligibility. "Once I didn't get my score [on the Scholastic Aptitude Test or American College Test], it was out of the picture," said Bright.

Ultimately, Bright's struggle helped Booth. The two talked often last season, when Bright was sitting out in Amherst trying to improve his academic standing and Booth, a senior at Dunbar, was trying to make sure he didn't have the same academic problems as his cousin or Lloyd, who wound up at San Jacinto Junior College in Texas.

"I know it was kind of frustrating for Donta," said Booth, who got the necessary SAT score on his second try. "He told me, 'Don't let it happen to you.' He kept telling me to work hard on getting ready for the test."

A surprising thing happened to Bright during his freshman year at UMass. With intramural basketball as his only physical outlet, Bright wound up spending more time in study halls than most of his teammates. Massachusetts coach John Calipari was more than a little surprised at the off-court work habits of a player who was considered an academic risk coming out of high school.

"He's got the largest work capacity of anyone I've ever seen," Calipari said recently. "That's the thing the people at Dunbar should be most proud of. I'm shocked after everything I heard about Donta. He spends four to five hours in study hall, then comes to practice and works hard. Most kids might do one or the other, but not both. He has the capacity of four other players."

Said Bright: "Last year was one of the best experiences in my life. I proved to myself that I could study a long time. I think what helped me coming here from Baltimore was that this place was dead, and I needed to get away from the distractions at home. Some nights there was nothing to do but study. And the people here got to know me as a student, not just a basketball player."

It also helped take the pressure off Bright as a player. A combination of a season out of the spotlight, as well as the signing of 6-11 high school All-American Marcus Camby, took much of the attention away from Bright. It bothered him at first, but later he got used to the idea.

"When Marcus signed, I was sort of left behind," said Bright. "But then I took it as a positive. Last summer, when I played in the Sports Festival down in San Antonio, I was rusty and I heard people saying, 'Donta's overrated.' And Marcus was the MVP. So people didn't expect as much from me this year."

Camby's knee injury in UMass' upset of then-top-ranked North Carolina last month in the semifinals of the Preseason National Invitation Tournament helped put Bright into the starting lineup. Camby is expected to be cleared to play this week, but Bright could remain a starter for the time being.

"Donta was smart," said Calipari. "He came in and said publicly, 'Don't expect too much from me early. I'm rusty.' Let's face it, the kid's not Julius Erving yet, but he's not bad for a freshman [first-year player]."

Pressure eases for Booth

While Bright has come out of Camby's shadow -- averaging 12.8 points and 6.6 rebounds -- Booth has been helped by playing in the shadow cast by freshman sensation Joe Smith at Maryland. The expectations for Booth have lessened as Smith, the second-biggest name in the Maryland freshman class going into preseason practice, has emerged as the team's star.

"I'm happy playing with a guy like Joe," said Booth, who is averaging 12.0 points and 7.0 rebounds while starting all of Maryland's games. "I've never been one to get caught up in all that stuff. I don't look at it as pressure. I'm just trying to help the team win."

Said Maryland coach Gary Williams: "With Keith, it's good for him right now that there's not a lot of scoring pressure. We can find other ways to score. What Keith's been able to do is concentrate on the things he does well, like rebounding, passing and handling the ball. His role will expand. His contributions have been very valuable."

Oklahoma assistant coach Darrell Patillo, who has seen both play this season, recently was asked to compare Booth and Bright.

Booth scored 12 points and had seven rebounds before fouling out of an 88-85 loss to the Sooners. Bright scored a career-high 27 on 13-for-15 shooting, along with 10 rebounds, in an 83-82 win in Norman a couple of weeks before.

"Bright's a little more polished offensively, while Booth tends to do more defensively," said Patillo. "He also spots up a little bit more inside and is very strong around the basket. They're as good as any freshman in the Big Eight. They're extremely competitive."

But that's how it's always been, going back to the days shooting at milk crates and under the stars in Keith Booth's back yard, the days when Donta Bright brought his younger cousin to the Oliver Rec Center. And that was before they outgrew everyone in their family.

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