Off beaten path

The Baltimore Sun

SAN ANTONIO-- --There hardly is a prominent athlete at any level who has not said, usually as a self-motivational tool, "Nobody ever thought I would be here."

But there may not be an athlete today for whom it is more true than Joey Dorsey. He knows it, and before his Memphis team faces UCLA in tonight's national semifinal game at the Alamodome, he will - as he does before every game - cast his mind back to where he was eight years ago.

"I always think about the kid who grew up in Baltimore, who was just playing around out in the streets, who didn't start playing organized basketball until he was 15," Dorsey, the senior center and product of West Baltimore, said yesterday before his team practiced at the Dome.

Try to find a player on any recent national championship contender who emerged from where Dorsey did. From playing in the park, essentially, to joining his friends' AAU team, to making a complicated transfer from his alternative school to Douglass High, to a state championship in his only year there, to one prep school, to another prep school, and then to Memphis.

Having those teammates, Gerald Brown and Tyler Smith, get him onto the vaunted Baltimore Select AAU team, then get him to Douglass, was the turning point. Until then, Dorsey wasn't going anywhere special - nowhere particularly bad, but still nowhere close to where he is now.

"We say things like, 'Sports can save young men's lives,' and you hope it really happens here and there," said Scottie Bowden, one of his coaches at Baltimore Select. "Joey has taken advantage of it."

Even Dorsey's presence on the 2001-02 unbeaten Class 3A champion at Douglass-where he, Smith and Brown made The Sun's All-Metro team - was "kind of amazing," said Douglass' coach then and now, Rodney Coffield. "When he came to us, he wasn't even in high school, not playing basketball."

Until college, Dorsey's life, and thus his basketball career, had zigzagged all over the place. Hence, he told The Sun early in his freshman year at Memphis, the nickname his mother, Charlene, gave him, Joey, Australian slang for a baby kangaroo. He began calling himself that in his freshman year, rather than his given name, Richard.

The new name fit, considering that in the four years before college, Dorsey had been in four schools, starting with New Foundations alternative school near downtown (for youngsters referred from the state school system with "behavioral problems," although all who know him insist he was just incredibly inattentive and prone to goofing around in class).

"Basically, he was picked up off the street," Bowden said. "Basketball just wasn't a priority. ... It wasn't until he got to Douglass when he began to realize, 'Hey, maybe we can do something with this basketball thing.' "

"He's a good kid, I mean a real good kid," Coffield said. "[But] he had never played any organized ball at the school level, even at the rec center level. But at the AAU level, he was getting a lot of looks."

The lookers kept looking even after it was ruled that he was out of eligibility at Douglass after that championship season; they kept looking while he was at Mount Zion and Laurinburg prep schools in North Carolina. Memphis won out, enlisting him in four years of John Calipari riding him to keep his head on straight and channel his energy.

Of course, it's hardly a stretch to see that Dorsey's maturity curve was different from his teammates' and their more conventional routes to this point. Dorsey, at 24 the oldest player here, still finds himself learning lessons. He has been reminded endlessly this season, for instance, about how he called out Ohio State's Greg Oden before last year's regional final and got embarrassed.

"I wanted a lot of the focus to be on me," Dorsey said yesterday. "I was a little selfish and immature. But I put that behind me and had a great offseason."

And, of course, a great season, which has brought him not only to within two wins of a national championship, but also likely within two months of hearing his name called at the NBA draft.

Various sectors of his Baltimore basketball family plan to be on hand for both. "It'll be a reunion," Dorsey said upon hearing that Bowden and his two brothers, also involved with Baltimore Select, are due to arrive today.

Coffield hopes to be present on draft day. "That's not the way it's usually written in the book," he said of Dorsey. "He took the scenic route."

Routes don't get any more scenic than Dorsey's.

Listen to David Steele on Wednesdays at 9 a.m. on WNST (1570 AM).

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