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Former Dunbar and Maryland star Keith Booth fired as Poets boys basketball coach during first season

Dunbar coach Keith Booth directs his team during the 2020 Basketball Academy tournament at Morgan State on Jan. 10, 2020.
Dunbar coach Keith Booth directs his team during the 2020 Basketball Academy tournament at Morgan State on Jan. 10, 2020.(Karl Merton Ferron / Baltimore Sun)

Dunbar basketball great Keith Booth, a 1993 graduate who in May was named the coach of the storied boys basketball program he once starred for, has been fired before the end of his first season, according to an email sent to parents by the school’s principal Monday.

The email, obtained by The Baltimore Sun, says “the action was taken as a result of a personnel matter currently under investigation by the Baltimore City Public Schools.”

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“Out of respect for Coach Booth’s due process rights as an employee, we are unable to share details of the investigation," principal Yetunde Reeves wrote. "We are hopeful of concluding the matter quickly, and again, in the best interests of our students.”

Baltimore City Public Schools issued a statement Tuesday confirming Booth’s dismissal with no details of the cause, citing a confidential personnel matter. The Poets’ first-year junior varsity coach Donta Bright, a Dunbar alum and former Massachusetts star, is also no longer with the program. The school’s athletic director, Dana Johnson, will serve as an interim coach for both the varsity and junior varsity for the remainder of the season. Johnson, a Western grad, 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.

The Poets’ varsity game at Forest Park on Tuesday, set for 5:15 p.m., was rescheduled for Thursday at Forest Park. Dunbar finishes the regular season at home against Patterson on Feb. 21.

Booth, 45, 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.”

“Unfortunately, I did not become aware of that interaction until several weeks later, and suffice it to say, I then took all appropriate actions that I believe to be correct and relevant to ensure that the situation was properly and fully reported to parents and the administration,” the statement continued. "To that end, it is unfortunate and disappointing that a subsequent letter was sent to all Dunbar parents and guardians by the Dunbar administration suggested that ‘everyone’ was ‘strongly encourage[d] ... to avoid speculation and gossip in this matter.' As it relates to me, however, there is absolutely no reason for any speculation or gossip whatsoever.

“As there are young people’s lives involved, it is inappropriate for me to provide specific details but, if permitted, I plan to defend my decisions and reputation during any administrative appeal.”

Booth’s predecessor, Cyrus Jones Sr., who attended the school’s press conference in May when his former teammate was announced as his replacement, expressed disappointment in Monday’s news.

“It’s a sad day for Baltimore City basketball, a sad day for the historic Dunbar program within itself, and the people regarding alumni that have basically come through that school and had the success they have had. It’s a school that has a lot of history and right now with all the success they have had, this is a black eye,” said Jones, who stepped down in March after 12 seasons and five state titles.

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Dunbar, which is in a rebuilding season with a young nucleus of players, has a losing record and has lost its past three Baltimore City league games against Poly, Lake Clifton and Mervo. Despite winning a state-record 16 state basketball titles, all since 1993 — including a pair of four-peats (2003 to 2006 and 2010 to 2013) — the Poets have won only one championship since, in 2017-18. Dunbar finished 16-9 last season, losing to Lake Clifton in the Class 1A North semifinals.

A McDonald’s All American at Dunbar, Booth went on to enjoy a stellar college career at Maryland before becoming a first-round draft pick, 28th overall, by the Chicago Bulls in 1997. He spent two seasons with the Bulls, winning an NBA championship in 1998.

As a junior at Dunbar in 1992, Booth helped the Poets win their third national championship, following titles in 1983 and 1985.

At Maryland, Booth started 126 games, second most in program history behind Steve Blake (136). He finished his Terps career first in free throws made (576) and attempted (824), sixth in rebounding (916) and ninth in points scored (1,776).

Before getting the Dunbar job, Booth served as an assistant at Maryland from 2004 to 2011 under Gary Williams, followed by stints as an assistant at Loyola Maryland in both the men’s and women’s basketball programs. He also took over as coach of Under Armour’s under-17 team for Team Thrill last spring.

When Booth was introduced as coach in May, Johnson said the school convened a panel to provide a recommendation to then-principal Tammy Mays, and after interviewing five candidates, the decision was made to hire Booth.

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“The panel thought he would be the best fit, being an alumni, his background with the NBA and on the college level and currently his connection with some of the better AAU programs in the city. Those were some of the things that tilted us in his direction,” Johnson said in a telephone interview with The Baltimore Sun after Booth was hired in May.

“The biggest thing for us at this time because of his college background, and his knowledge of the NCAA recruiting process, and his knowledge of what coaches are looking for in prospective athletes, we felt that is a big bonus for our players to give them the inside track for what it takes [to play at the next level].”

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