As Keith Booth walked through the hallways of Dunbar High School one morning last week, some of the students gawked and others giggled. Many of them rushed up to him with pen and paper for an autograph. One girl even told Booth's mother that she was going to marry her son.
Booth, who was visiting the school along with former Dunbar teammate and current Maryland teammate Rodney Elliott, had been honored earlier there with a proclamation from the governor and words of congratulation from the mayor.
In turn, Booth told a story about growing up in East Baltimore.
"When I was 8 or 9 years old, I had a friend named Gregory Thorpe," Booth told a group of students in the school's library. "We would talk about our goals. My goal was to be the next big basketball player from Baltimore. His goal was to be the next big drug dealer."
"We both accomplished our goals," he said.
Booth would go on to talk about receiving a telephone call from his sister early during his sophomore year in College Park. The news didn't come as a surprise. On the very same steps Booth and his friend had shared their childhood dreams, Thorpe had been shot to death.
"Growing up where we did, that's all around you," said Booth, 22. "Fortunately for me, my mom always stressed how important it was for me to get my education, to stay out of trouble. I was always into college basketball. That's all I wanted to be -- a college basketball player."
Booth has become much more than that in his four years at Maryland.
First, he was a symbol, the blue-chip recruit who broke the unwritten ban on Dunbar players going to Maryland that began after Ernest Graham left without a degree in 1981. Then he became an integral member of three straight NCAA tournament teams, the blue-collar guy who helped support the team's bigger names.
Now, he has become what many believed he would be when he left Dunbar: a star.
If last Thursday was deemed "Keith Booth Day" by Gov. Parris N. Glendening in the state of Maryland, then tonight should be "Keith Booth Night" in Baltimore. Booth will return for his fourth and final visit to Baltimore Arena as a college player when the seventh-ranked Terrapins play Penn at 8 p.m.
"When you go to college, you don't know if you're going to get the opportunity to come back and play in front of your hometown crowd," Booth said last week, sitting in the library at Dunbar. "I've been very fortunate. I've played here every year I've been at Maryland."
In many ways, Booth's career at Maryland has mirrored his career at Dunbar. In high school, he was a year behind a class that included two other talented players: his first cousin and best friend, Donta Bright, and Michael Lloyd. The Poets won the mythical national championship in Booth's junior year.
As a Terrapin, Booth played his first two years in the rather imposing shadow of classmate Joe Smith, who would leave in spring 1995 to become the first player taken in the NBA draft after leading Maryland to successive appearances in the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16. With last season's four seniors gone, too, this has become Booth's team.
"He's been a true leader," said sophomore center Obinna Ekezie. "He's a model for what a senior should be and what a senior's supposed to do. That is what we lacked last year, when those guys were out for themselves. The other guys feed off Keith."
This year's Maryland team has become a reflection of Booth -- selfless, hard-working, resilient. And confident, to be sure. Booth's confidence has always been obvious, from the time he handled the ball against Georgetown's pressure defense in his first college game.
As his mother, Norma Salmon, said of her son recently: "He always knew he was The Man. He just had to wait his turn."
As a player, Booth always has worked to eliminate his deficiencies. He went from being a 58 percent free-throw shooter as a freshman to nearly 76 percent last season. He expanded his shooting range so much that NBA scouts are looking at him as a more legitimate pro prospect. Though his foul trouble has hurt Maryland in its only two losses, Booth has managed to stay on the court when most needed.
Some things haven't changed. Booth came to his first practice as a freshman ready to play, and he still comes with the same mind-set. He hasn't missed a practice or a game in four years, and earlier this season broke the school record for consecutive starts. Tonight will mark the 112th straight game when Booth's name -- followed by the now-expected chant of "Boooooooooth" -- will be announced in the pre-game introductions.
"He was a very strong player at the high school level because of his size," Maryland coach Gary Williams said of Booth, who, at 6 feet 6 and 226 pounds, is the same height and 16 pounds heavier than he was as a freshman. "He pretty much had his way inside. He learned that it didn't work all the time in college, and he's been able to move his game outside. But at the same time, he hasn't gone away from what has made him successful, and that is taking the ball to the basket."
Though confident he will get a chance to play in the pros, Booth saw what happened to Bright after leaving the University of Massachusetts. Bright was considered much like Booth, a terrific college player whose skills might not transfer to the NBA. Bright went undrafted, tried out for the New Jersey Nets and was cut by his former college coach, John Calipari. Bright is now playing in Argentina.
NBA scouts consider Booth a better prospect, mostly because of his ball-handling skills and toughness. That Bright was always a second -- or third -- option behind Lou Roe and Marcus Camby at Massachusetts meant that he never had the opportunity to play a starring role, as Booth has this season.
And just as he learned while they were growing up across the street from each other at the corner of Madison Street and Patterson Park Avenue, Booth still is learning from Bright's experience.
"He told me not to get too caught up in thinking about the future," Booth said. "That's what I'm trying to do. I want to cherish the moment. Every kid dreams about playing in the NBA. If it happens, that's great. But if it doesn't happen, I have the confidence to think I'll be successful in whatever I do."
Toward that goal, Booth is working on getting his degree in criminology later this year. He said he expects to be two classes short after the spring semester, which would allow him "to walk" at commencement exercises on the same court where he has played. By then, a banner with Booth's number, 22, could be hanging from the rafters of Cole Field House.
"I'd like to see it done," Williams said of having Booth's number retired. "It should be done. The difference he has made for the program and for the university is something special."
Asked if getting his degree is an even bigger accomplishment than anything he has done on the basketball court, Booth said: "Without question. A lot of guys go to college to play ball and leave without their degrees. They feel like they're given a free ride.
"I wanted to take advantage of it. My mom always wanted me to get my education. I feel like I owe that to her to get my degree."
This could have been a difficult season at Maryland. If Booth had suddenly wanted to prove to the pro scouts that he could be a jump shooter, if he had decided he was tired of doing the dirty work on the boards, the Terps wouldn't have gotten off to their best start in school history by winning 15 of 17 after Sunday's 54-51 upset of then-No. 2 Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, N.C.
The play that sums up Booth's leadership and Maryland's season came in the final seconds. With the score tied at 51, Booth had the ball in the corner. He started to drive toward the basket, but at the last instant fed Laron Profit on the wing. The sophomore guard made the three-point shot, and Booth got the biggest assist of his college career.
"That's what makes Keith Booth a great player," Williams said. "Most guys in his position would take the shot, but he gave it up because another guy was open."
Booth has never been what some would call a "big-timer," someone whose ego controls his every move. That much was evident at Dunbar last week, when Booth stayed for two hours after the assembly was over to roam the halls with Elliott, popping into the classrooms of former teachers and spending time with their students.
"He always seemed to know where he was going and how he was going to get there," said Racquel Smith, who has taught at Dunbar for 27 years and had Booth in a ninth-grade social studies class. "He always had a game plan. He was very focused, very mature for his age. I'm impressed now seeing him speaking on national television after games, seeing how he's so poised."
Booth can remember when he was growing up and the older kids in the neighborhood would tease him about being small and wearing glasses, about not having the game to compete even at the local rec center.
Their taunts made him work harder, just as the doubts he has heard since coming to Maryland made him continue to work.
"I always had self-confidence," he said. "I always knew my time would come."
Terps at Arena
Arena Time: 8 tonight
Radio: WBAL (1090 AM), WTOP (1500 AM)
Tickets: Limited number of $8 seats available, in upper corners of the arena, through the Arena box office or Ticketmaster (410) 481-SEAT.
The best of Booth
Highlights of Keith Booth's career at Maryland:
Scored 14 points and pulled down 11 rebounds in first ACC game to help Maryland upset No. 12 Georgia Tech in Atlanta.
Scored 15 points and grabbed 11 rebounds in victory at Florida State, hitting five of six free-throw attempts after Joe Smith had fouled out.
Averaged 14.0 points on 15-for-26 shooting and 6.3 rebounds in three NCAA tournament games, helping the Terrapins reach the Sweet 16.
Scored 15 points by making seven of 10 shots in nationally televised victory over No. 15 Virginia.
Averaged 10.3 points and 12.3 rebounds in NCAA tournament -- including 15 against first-round opponent Gonzaga -- as the Terrapins advanced to Sweet 16 for the second straight year.
Scored 27 points, pulled down a career-high 16 rebounds and handed out five assists in win over Virginia at Cole.
Scored 29 points to go along with 10 rebounds to help the Terrapins beat the Cavaliers in Charlottesville.
Scored a career-high 33 points on 13-for-20 shooting in an ACC tournament semifinal loss to Georgia Tech.
Named third-team all-ACC.
Had 22 points with seven rebounds against Cal and 29 points with 12 rebounds against George Washington to lead Maryland to championship of Franklin National Bank Classic. Named tournament MVP.
Named MVP of Rainbow Classic after leading Terrapins to final. Scored 25 points with seven rebounds in opening round against Pitt and had 25 points in second-round win over Hawaii.
Scored 20 points with 12 rebounds in historic comeback win at North Carolina, a game in which the Terrapins trailed by 22 with 14: 24 left in the second half.
Added to the list of Wooden Award candidates for national Player of the Year.
Pub Date: 1/21/97