When Keith Booth was growing up in East Baltimore, he dreamed of playing in a big-time college program before going on to a long career in the NBA.
“We all grew up in the same neighborhood,” Booth said Wednesday. ”I used to see them all the time. I used to sneak into the gym to watch all those guys.”
Now 44 and more than a quarter-century removed from leaving Dunbar for Maryland as a McDonald’s All American, Booth will be returning later this year as the school’s boys basketball coach.
Booth will be introduced Thursday during a noon news conference at the school.
The program he left in the spring of 1993 is still more than respectable, but is no longer the dominant local and national power it once was, during and for several years after he played.
Booth knows he will be following in some big shoes, particularly those worn by William “Sugar” Cain and Bob Wade, as well as by his own Dunbar coach, Pete Pompey, among others.
“For the simple fact that, first and foremost, knowing the tradition and the foundation that was laid before you, all the great coaches that came before me, going back to when my parents attended Dunbar,” Booth said. “I remember the Coach Wade era, and the things that he instilled in the players overall. You hear the stories growing up. And of course the coach I played for, Pete Pompey, you understand it’s a big deal.”
Booth’s connection to Dunbar was one of the major reasons athletic director Dana Johnson hired him last week to replace Cyrus Jones Sr., Booth’s former Dunbar teammate who was a year ahead of him in school. Jones stepped down in March after 12 seasons at the school.
In essence, Johnson is hoping Booth’s resume and reputation will help attract players as talented and tough as he was under Pompey and later under Gary Williams at Maryland.
Johnson, who has been the school’s athletic director for the past eight years, said it was important for Dunbar to be coached by someone whose own history can be traced to the program’s decades of glory years.
“We definitely wanted to try to hire somebody who knows that tradition and was a part of that tradition and was a major part of laying that tradition,” Johnson said. “For him to be able to come back home and to impart some of that knowledge to these young men, these up-and-coming young men, is a bonus for the program.”
As a junior at Dunbar, Booth helped the Poets win their third mythical national championship in 1992, following similar titles in 1983 and 1985.
At Maryland, Booth started all 126 games in which he played — second only to Steve Blake’s 136 career starts — while finishing first in free throws made (576) and attempted (824), sixth in rebounding (916) and ninth in points scored (1,776).
A third-team All-American as a senior, Booth was selected by the then-world champion Chicago Bulls with the last pick of the first round of the 1997 NBA draft. He played sparingly in his two NBA seasons, but earned a championship ring in 1998.
Booth returned to Maryland as an assistant coach in 2004 and spent seven seasons working for Williams. Booth then went to Loyola Maryland as an assistant coach for the women’s team before shifting to Loyola’s men’s staff.
“Keith has been different places. He’s had all kinds of experiences that very few people in the game ever had,” Williams said. “He was a Dunbar student and athlete, and he went to the top of the world with the Chicago Bulls. I think all those experiences shape what you are as a coach.
“I think Keith has been able to play in the ACC, play in the NBA but also play in ‘The Dome’ up in Baltimore. … That’s a great thing to give back to players, especially since he is a Dunbar grad.”
Wade, who coached at Dunbar from 1975 through his hiring at Maryland in the fall of 1986, said, “I think Dunbar is very fortunate to kind of lure him back to his alma mater. … I think it’s a tremendous feather in Dunbar’s cap to get him to come back.
”Keith is very talented, not just as a basketball player. He has a lot to offer young kids now. He’s played on every level and I think he’s grasped a lot along the way. He’s got great knowledge to pass down to the younger kids coming up.”
Despite winning a state-record 16 state basketball titles, all since 1993 — including a pair of four-peats (2003-06 and 2010-13) — the Poets have won only one since, in 2017-18. In Jones’ last season, Dunbar finished 16-9, losing to Lake Clifton in the Class 1A North semifinals.
Booth said he hopes to reinvigorate the program by going back to a simple four-word phrase he and others heard from their coaches as they broke the huddle: “Poet Pride on 3.”
“It’s a thing that you live after you leave Dunbar. If you walked those halls and you’re a graduate of Dunbar, you know what Poet Pride means,” Booth said. “As a new coach coming in, part of my job is to uphold that true Poet Pride tradition in terms of what it means to be a Dunbar grad — a student, not just an athlete — and the pride and the dignity that comes with that.”
Baltimore Sun reporter Glenn Graham contributed to this article.