Booth And Williams Healed Baltimore's Rift With Terps
By Keith Mills
They stood on stage together at the Hippodrome Theatre in downtown Baltimore for one more team picture, a collection of some of the finest basketball players in Maryland history -- Tom McMillen, Walt Williams, Derrick Lewis, Steve Francis, Johnny Rhodes and four players who returned to their roots to honor their former coach, Baltimore's Evers Burns, Keith Booth, Rodney Elliott and Juan Dixon.
They came to pay tribute to Terps coach Gary Williams, who was being inducted into the Sports Legends Museum Hall of Legends. Williams is, of course, the man whose embrace and affection for Booth, one of his favorite all-time players and now one of his assistant coaches, triggered a story that forever changed the course of local basketball.
It was the fall of 1992 and the landscape of basketball at both the University of Maryland and the city of Baltimore was about to change.
Dunbar, crowned national high school champion by USA Today just seven months earlier after finishing the year 29-0, was set to play Edmondson in the Poets' first game as a member of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association. Baltimore City Public Schools joined the MPSSAA after the 1991-92 school year, and city-wide basketball would be forever transformed by the move.
But it was who was in the stands that balmy, early December day in '92, not the teams on the court, which would affect the future of University of Maryland basketball.
Williams had replaced Bob Wade as coach at Maryland after the 1989 season and had worked hard to tear down the imaginary wall existing between College Park and East Baltimore. The tension went back to the days of Ernie Graham, who followed Larry Gibson from Dunbar to Maryland in 1977 and felt then-coach Lefty Driesell had treated him unfairly.
But the rift was nothing compared to the flat-out hostility existing between Baltimore-area fans, including Dunbar alumni, and the University of Maryland about the treatment of Wade.
Wade was an Eastside icon after he took over the Dunbar program from veteran coach Sugar Cain in 1975 and led the Poets to a pair of national championships. Wade was, after all, one of Baltimore's own, a man born and bred on tough streets who rose up to star later for Earl "Papa Bear" Banks on the football field at Morgan State and ultimately the NFL.
The Maryland administration hung Wade out to dry during his time in College Park. When the Terrapins basketball program was placed on probation after the 1989 season, Wade, who replaced Driesell after the death of Len Bias in 1986, was made the scapegoat, and forced to resign in disgrace after just three years of service.
Old wounds run deep, and this one ran as deep as the nearby Patapsco River, lasting well into the early 1990s.
Williams, a former player at Maryland, replaced Wade and soon found the fertile high school gyms and playgrounds of Baltimore were off limits to him or anyone else connected with the Terps' basketball program.
Quietly, Williams began to chip away at the anger and resentment, building an alliance with several Baltimore businessmen and many local high school and college coaches. He attended summer league games at the famed Madison Square Recreation Center and was a regular at countless Terrapin Club alumni gatherings in the Baltimore area.
But he had yet to attend a game at Dunbar.
Meanwhile, two things happened early during Gary Williams' tenure to open the eyes of basketball players and coaches both in Baltimore and throughout the state.
Wade resigned May 12, 1989. Before he did, he recruited, among others, Walt Williams out of Crossland High in Prince George's County and Burns out of Woodlawn High in Baltimore.
Walt Williams had helped coach Earl Hawkins win a state championship as a junior at Crossland and was originally recruited by Driesell. He signed when Wade was the coach, but he thought long and hard about transferring after his sophomore year when the Terps were placed on probation and stars Tony Massenburg and Jerrod Mustaf were both headed to the NBA.
Then he received a visit from Gary Williams and assistant coach Billy Hahn at his home in Temple Hills.
"They came to the hood," Walt Williams said. "They knocked on the door, came into my living room, sat down with my father and asked me to stay.
"I'll never forget that. I stayed because of that, and because Coach Williams was always honest and loyal with me. He treated me like a man and took my game to another level. One of the best decisions I ever made was to stay at Maryland."
Still, there were no Maryland players from East Baltimore or the street-tough MSA A Conference, which featured the best teams and the best players in the city, players like Kevin Simpson of Southern, and Kevin Norris and Shanta Rogers of Lake Clifton.
During the spring of 1992, Gary Williams set out to change that. He received commitments from three Washington, D.C.-area players -- Duane Simpkins of DeMatha, Exree Hipp of Harker Prep and Johnny Rhodes of Dunbar (D.C.). He also targeted Baltimore's Booth from Dunbar as the one player he hoped would tear down the wall, ultimately easing tensions.
Along with Michael Lloyd, who would go on to Syracuse, and Donta Bright, who eventually played for John Calipari at UMass, Booth led Pete Pompey's Poets to a perfect season and Dunbar's third national title in 1991-92.
During the summer of '92, Booth was a major recruit nationally. Rick Pitino wanted him at Kentucky, Mike Krzyzewski wanted him at Duke and Jim Harrick wanted him at UCLA.
Booth was everything Williams loved in a player -- tough, strong, hard-working, mentally tough, humble, unselfish, honest and loyal. Plus, he was versatile and could flat-out play.
By the time his senior year began in 1992, Booth had already visited Kentucky and Duke and had listed those two schools, Maryland and Towson State as his final four teams.
And so it was in early December 1992 when Williams made the trip from College Park to Orleans St. in East Baltimore to watch Dunbar play Edmondson. He walked alone into the Dunbar gym and took a seat halfway up the wooden bleachers across from the visiting team's bench. He watched Booth, Norman Nolan, Elliott, sophomore Tommy Polley and Jeryl Singletary lead the Poets to their 53rd win in a row.
Booth poured in 34 points and followed one week later with 35 more as Dunbar beat St. Raymond's of New York, 61-59. But it was Williams' mere appearance at Dunbar that left a lasting impression on not just Booth, but many of the Poets and Eastside supporters who never wavered in their loyalty to Wade but admittedly were impressed Williams showed up at Dunbar. They were also pleased with the way Williams' teams played and the loyalty he showed to both Walt Williams and Burns.
Three months later, March 12, 1993, Booth made the official announcement -- he was headed to Maryland.
The reaction from the community was not surprising. Like Wade, Booth was one of their own. They would support him whatever decision he made.
"He made a man-sized decision," said Pompey, who cleared the air with Williams early on during the recruiting process and supported Booth's decision wholeheartedly. "I'm proud of him. He's looking out for what's best for Keith Booth and his family, not for what happened before he got here."
"Coach Williams is a winner," Booth said then. "I respect what he's done and look forward to playing for him. I had to do what's best for Keith Booth, not what's best for somebody else."
Booth would ultimately join another freshman at College Park, a less-heralded recruit from Norfolk named Joe Smith, a lanky power forward who had signed early in the fall of '92.
Smith and Booth played two years together at Maryland, combining with Hipp, Simpkins and Rhodes to lead the Terps to back-to-back trips to the Sweet 16. Smith went on to become college basketball's Player of the Year and the first overall pick in the NBA draft in 1995, while Booth finished as one of Maryland greatest players, earning first-team All-ACC and All-American honors.
"I've said this before," said Gary Williams. "Keith Booth was the most important recruit we've had in my years at Maryland because it took us to the national level. It made it OK for other great players to come here."
Issue 154: October 2010