Keith Booth's return to Dunbar High School as its boys basketball coach has the feel of both a reunion and revival — a sense of what used to be when he played there and what could be again at the East Baltimore school.
There is also a sobering reality: As much of a force as the Poets were locally and nationally before Booth played and while he was there, the program’s pipeline of high-level college stars and future NBA standouts has ground to a halt.
So, in taking a job once held by local legends such as William “Sugar” Cain, Bob Wade and Pete Pompey, and kept at a high level by Eric Lee and, most recently, Cyrus Jones Sr., Booth might have a tougher task than anyone who preceded him.
Yet given what Booth has experienced — including being a McDonald’s All-American as a high school senior, a third-team All-American as a senior at Maryland and an NBA first-round draft pick — he could be perfect for the job.
“It’s bigger than me becoming the coach at Dunbar; it’s about us as a community,” Booth, 44, said interview one day after his May 23 introductory news conference. “It’s not just me as a coach. It’s the educators, the teachers, community leaders.
“It’s about us holding these kids accountable and providing them with authentic love, first and foremost. Secondly, providing them with genuine opportunities for them to go on and be successful, opportunities like we had — myself, Sam Cassell, Muggsy Bogues, Reggie Williams, David Wingate, best-selling author D. Watkins. That’s is what this is about.”
Darnell Dantzler, a childhood friend and teammate who has coached at Edmondson High for the past 13 years, said Booth has long been a “real pillar in the community” and that Booth’s experience since leaving Dunbar will help him bring the Poets back to prominence.
“It speaks volumes for the community to have a role model that actually played on every level, and to teach the kids and give them the experience on every level,” Dantzler said. “The sky’s the limit. He’s going to show the kids that you can make it academically and athletically.”
Booth is aware Dunbar is not the powerhouse it was when he played there, and the players he will be coaching are not at the same level as the ones who led the school to three national championships and went on to reach the NBA in the 1980s and 1990s.
“As a former player, when you first get into coaching, one of the first things you’ve got to realize is that times are not the same from when you played,” Booth said. “I can’t be so ablaze with my own fire that I burn up the kids I’m trying to help. That’s been my motto from day one. You can’t do that. The morals, the principles and what it takes to be successful are the same, but you’ve got to approach it a little bit different.”
As successful as Booth was in high school and college, his professional career was short, a little over two years buried deep on the bench of the Chicago Bulls, who drafted him with the last pick of the first round in 1997 after the second of their three straight NBA titles.
That brief professional career and the transition to coaching — at Maryland under Gary Williams and with the Loyola Maryland men’s and women’s programs — will play a big part in how Booth approaches his new job.
“That’s 90% of my message,” Booth said. “When you’re speaking about success, I’ve accomplished some things. But there are more successful students that graduated from Dunbar that never even stepped on the football field or basketball court when they were there that are doing great things in the community.
“My story is a small, minute piece of the success that comes out of Dunbar High School. My grandmother graduated in the 40s. Her sister, my great aunt Mary, was at the press conference [Thursday]. She graduated in the 40s. That feel of community at Dunbar High School was something that existed back then.”
Booth said the five-year period between the end of his NBA career and the start of his coaching career “wasn’t tough,” as some believed at the time, when he seemingly stayed out of sight as the Terps reached their first Final Four in 2001 and won their only national championship the following season.
Booth went back to College Park in 2003 and finished his last six credits to get his degree.
“I knew there was some unfinished business I had to take care of,” Booth said. “I didn’t go through a whole depression period, being out of the game, nothing like that. I stayed really strong through it all. I had to go back and get my degree, something I promised myself I was going to do when I first went to Maryland.”
After finishing his last class, Booth went by the basketball office to thank Williams and his assistants. It was around that time that one of them, Jimmy Patsos, was on the verge of getting his first head coaching job at Loyola Maryland.
“That summer, I had the opportunity to work at Coach Williams’ camp, and he asked me if I ever thought about getting into coaching,” Booth recalled. “As a player, you never think about getting into coaching -- you think you’re going to have a 20-year [playing] career. Coach gave me the opportunity and I jumped on it.”
Dantzler said the ups and downs Booth experienced after leaving Maryland can resonate with those he will coach at Dunbar.
“The one thing I'm proudest of is that he’s a positive young black man,” Dantzler said. “From everything he’s been through, no matter if he played 15 years in the NBA or 15 minutes, he made it. That’s one of the messages that he can tell the kids.”
Patsos called Booth “a great teacher of the game” and said his playing style and personality is a good fit at Dunbar.
“It’s a win for the city, but it’s a win for Dunbar and I think it’s a win for Keith,” Patsos said. “It’s a privilege to coach. It’s a great opportunity for Keith. Him being named the coach at Dunbar is a great part of his journey.
Councilman Robert Stokes Sr., a 1976 Dunbar graduate, said Booth’s hiring was a “blessing” and that his career in high school, college and the pros should serve as an inspiration to those he will coach.
“It was a long-awaited opportunity for someone as great as Keith Booth to coach at Dunbar,” said Stokes, whose district includes the Dunbar community. “It’s a help to Baltimore to make sure those kids not only play basketball very well but also get their education.
“If they don’t become NBA players, they have something to fall back on and become good [law-]abiding citizens in Baltimore. He got his college degree. He played in the NBA. Even though he didn’t play for 10 years, he had something to fall back on. He can teach those young men, ‘There’s always a pathway for you.’ ”
Though Dunbar won the last of its record 16 state championships only two seasons ago under Jones, who played with Booth in high school and won five state titles in his 12 years as coach, a program that dominated the high school landscape for decades is now just one of many hoping to be in the hunt.
“From experience, you know whenever there’s a coaching change, anything good or worthwhile takes time. This thing is going to take time and it’s not going to be just on me, and I understand that,” said Booth, who’ll become one of more than a dozen former Poets to transition into coaching high school in Baltimore.
“The leaders — [athletic director] Dana Johnson and principal [Tammy] Mays — understand that well. At the same time, there’s a great deal of value I bring to the table with all the great things that are taking place at Dunbar High School, not only from an athletic standpoint but also from an academic standpoint, the timing couldn’t be any better.”
Booth is still the fierce competitor who played as an undersized power forward for the Terps, who along with Joe Smith helped Williams lead Maryland back to prominence in the mid-1990s. But he also knows there’s a balance that has to be achieved.
It began when he first met with some of his returning players the day of the introductory news conference.
“Now it’s matter of developing those relationships, taking it one step at a time with the kids that's returning,” Booth said. “The wins on the court will take care of itself, I’m a big believer in that. Don’t get me wrong — as a coach, you need to win games.
“But more importantly, you have to make a positive impact on these young men's lives and put them in a position where they can go on to be successful. Just like my coaches did, Coach Pompey and Coach Wade and Coach ‘Sugar’ Cain, guys like that did.”