It's called The Box, a sweltering, dimly lit gymnasium with a hard-court floor smudged dark brown, two half-moon-shaped backboards and four brick walls.
This is where David Wingate began a basketball journey, reaching each step on a path that stretched from the Cecil-Kirk Recreation Center in East Baltimore, to Dunbar High School, to Georgetown University, to the National Basketball Association.
In September, Wingate was on the verge of securing his financial future, coming within 48 hours of signing a three-year,$2.25 million contract with the San Antonio Spurs. But, now, he is back at The Box, practicing alone for games he may never play. His career hangs in the balance. And so does his life.
Wingate faces rape charges in Maryland and Texas. The contract offer from the Spurs is withdrawn. What could have beenthe best year of his life has turned into the worst.
"I'm mad about what is going on," Wingate said. "But I just have to take it one step at a time."
Last week, in his first interview since being indicted in September, Wingate declared his innocence and vowed to resumehis career after the resolution of his legal problems.
"I wouldn't be stupid enough to jeopardize my career," Wingate said in the presence of his Maryland attorney, Phil Armstrong.
Wingate is charged with second-degree rape, battery and a fourth-degree sexual offense for an alleged attack against a Baltimore teen-ager during a party at his Columbia apartment Sept. 16. Three days later, a 22-year-old San Antonio woman filed a civil suit against Wingate for an alleged rape that occurred in June. Wingate, Joel Mendiola, 27, and Edward Saunders, 23, later were indicted for sexual assault. If convicted as charged, Wingate faces up to 20 years in prison in each criminal case. Both criminal trials are expected to begin early next year.
"I can't change what people think," Wingate said. "As long as I have the truth, I'm not bothered."
In a court of law, Wingate is presumed innocent. In a professional sport, where image is nearly everything, innocence must be proven. He is 27 years old, in his prime, at 6 feet 5, 185 pounds. Although he is technically a restricted free agent, no team wants him.
"You understand the reaction people have had," San Antonio coach Larry Brown said. "I couldn't think of anything worse in the society today than when something like this happens. I have daughters. It is terrible what goes on today. Then, when you're a professional athlete, with what the NBA is trying to project, it's a sad scenario."
Even the father of the alleged rape victim in Howard County has expressed sympathy for what the charges have done to Wingate's life and career.
"It's so bad to see young black guys ruin their lives," said the father, who became acquainted with Wingate several months before the alleged attack occurred. "He needs to straighten out his life. I want him to get help. He needs it. He has a chance for a great career. But . . . how could he do this?"
Just who is David Wingate? The story is filled with contradictions. A hard worker on the court whose off-court partying bothered at least one landlord. A splendid athlete whose drinking troubled one NBA executive. A young man strong enough to adapt to the cloistered environment created by Bob Wade at Dunbar and John Thompson at Georgetown, yet apparently unprepared for the carnival that is the NBA. A devoted son who idolized his late mother and who now stands accused of rape.
"Everyone is not perfect," said Tyrone Bogues, Wingate's former Dunbar teammate who plays for the Charlotte Hornets. "Until the judge or jury decides what happens, you've got to keep an open mind. I know David. He was a good guy in high school. People can change. But he didn't change that much. He was a guy . . . his dreams came true.
"Hard road to NBA
The trip from The Box to the NBA was difficult. He was the gangly kid, the youngest of seven brothers and sisters, raised in a Baltimore rowhouse on a narrow residential street in Govans, a working-class neighborhood revitalized by a shopping strip along York Road. They called him Turtle because of his flat, misshapen nose. Opponents laughed at him. Fans pointed at him. One game, the abuse was so bad, Wingate's Cecil-Kirk recreation league coach, Anthony Lewis, pulled him off the court and said, "Listen to me, some day these people will look up to you."
It was the jump shot that turned heads. A bit awkward, but oh, so accurate. He used the backboard like a percussionist playing the tympani. Winning intrigued him.
L"Five guys, working together, doing the right thing," he said.