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In first game after Keith Booth’s firing, Dunbar boys basketball team focused on playing 'the game that they love’

The Dunbar boys basketball team huddles together with interim coach and athletic director Dana Johnson on Thursday night.
The Dunbar boys basketball team huddles together with interim coach and athletic director Dana Johnson on Thursday night. (Kyle J. Andrews)

Students and parents entered Dunbar’s gym on Thursday night to watch the Poets boys basketball team take on Forest Park, just two days after coach Keith Booth was fired during his first season.

Baltimore City Public Schools issued a statement Tuesday announcing Booth’s dismissal with no details of the cause, citing a confidential personnel matter.

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Booth, a former standout at Dunbar and Maryland who became the 28th overall pick in the 1997 NBA draft, posted a statement on Twitter on Tuesday, writing that “the incident in question concerns an inappropriate interaction between two Dunbar students who, at the time, were under my supervision.”

On Thursday night, the Poets responded with a resounding 88-30 victory, as three players finished in double figures and all 11 on the roster scored. It was the basketball team’s first game under the leadership of the school’s athletic director, Dana Johnson, who will serve as an interim coach for both the varsity and junior varsity teams for the remainder of the season.

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According to some of the players, the difference between playing for Booth and playing for Johnson, a Western graduate who coached for two seasons at her alma mater and spent 11 seasons as the boys varsity coach at Southside Academy before the school closed in 2013, was the “fun” that they had, featuring a fast and loose style.

“For them, I just want them to have fun,” Johnson said Thursday. “In the end, this is about them, this is their high school career. Yeah, you want to win, but in the end, I just want them to have fun. Just relax and play the game. They know how to play the game, but I just want them to enjoy playing the game.”

Some of the parents of the players noticed the difference as well, seeing their sons fly up and down the court with excitement. A majority of the players competed with each other on the junior varsity team, and are now leading a squad without any seniors.

David Charles, whose son plays for the team, said that Booth didn’t develop a strong relationship with his players.

“You’ve got to have a relationship with the coach,” Charles said. “Keith coached with his emotions and they don’t understand that — he’s old school. So, he’s a good dude, but a terrible coach and he doesn’t have a relationship with the kids.

“So, they weren’t able to do what they know how to do because he wanted them to be what he wanted them to be and not what they are.”

Several other parents and team supporters declined to comment Thursday.

In his statement Tuesday, Booth wrote: “Since taking the head coaching job at Dunbar last spring, my focus has been on the well-being of Dunbar students, communication with and inclusion of parents, and restoring the basketball program to its glorious tradition. As a point of fact, I implemented several programs throughout the school year so that our student athletes could appreciate and prepare for the challenges that academics, sports, and, above all, life, present.”

Dunbar (6-9, 6-4) is in second place in the Baltimore City B Division behind No. 2 Poly (20-2, 12-0). Johnson said that the key for the players isn’t to look ahead, but to stay in the moment and improve each time they step onto the court.

“They’re going to fight,” Johnson said. “These young men don’t give up and they have fight in them. So, we’re not worrying about standings. Like I said, we just want to get them better each day, let them know that we’re here for them no matter what happens and just want them to stay focused and play the game that they love to play.”

Charles is hoping for a new coach that can build a rapport with the players and encourage them, just as he believed that Johnson did in Thursday night’s game. He felt that Booth pulled his players out of the game too soon after making mistakes instead of coaching them through their errors.

“They looked confident, they looked happy, they did them, they beat somebody by 58 points,” Charles said. “They feel good. Going forward, that’s just what they need. They need to be able to play for themselves because they’re playing for their future.

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“If they aren’t happy, how are they going to go to college? How are they going to get the stats that they need to present to other coaches if they’re getting pulled out of the game as soon as they make the wrong move? Going forward, hopefully they can get somebody in his position that can boost their confidence and not take it from them, and maybe Dunbar will be Dunbar.”

The program, which has won a state-record 16 state basketball titles, all since 1993, won’t begin a coaching search until the season is over, according to Johnson.

“We’re not having a search,” Johnson said. “We’re just trying to get through the season. We want to focus on the kids and get them through the season and know that we’re still here for them, and in the end, it’s about them and not about the adults. So, we’re just trying to get through the season, let them stay focused, let them play hard, and then when the season is over, we’ll worry about the next coach.”

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