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David Wingate stands accused, his career, life in limbo

December 16, 1990|By Bill Glauber Mike Littwin of The Sun's sports staff contributed to this article.

Playing for the right people. There was Wade at Dunbar and Thompson at Georgetown. Both declined to comment for this article because of Wingate's pending litigation. They are tough, uncompromising men, father figures who acted as Wingate's guides to basketball's fast lane. At Dunbar, Wade inspected prospective fans and recruits with a wary gaze, always protective of his players. At Georgetown, Thompson maintained an image as a stern disciplinarian who enjoyed closed practices and a boot-camp atmosphere. The reality was slightly different, as Thompson provided enough space to let his players succeed or fail on their own.

"When you came out of that Georgetown program, you became stronger mentally," Wingate said. "You were taught about life after basketball. Coach Thompson kept you on your toes."

During his senior season at Dunbar in 1981-82, Wingate led the Poets to a 28-0 record and the runner-up position behind Calvert Hall for a mythical national high school championship. Four players from that Dunbar team -- Wingate, Bogues, Reggie Williams and Reggie Lewis -- eventually went to the pros.

At Georgetown, there was a 1984 National Collegiate Athletic Association title to celebrate, a degree in sociology to receive. The Hoyas used an aggressive, bullying style. But behind closed doors, the players danced before games and gathered 'round to hear Wingate tell jokes. He was the team cut-up, the player who did the best Thompson imitation and pulled the silliest pranks. Wingate enjoyed walking around airplanes, tapping people on the shoulders and motioning that another passenger wanted their attention.

"He is the funniest person I ever met," said former Georgetown guard Michael Jackson, who spent three years as Wingate's road roommate. "Sometimes, I'd have to get away from him, I hurt so much from laughing. But I remember when I separated my shoulder as a sophomore, I was lying in the bed in the hospital, and the first guy I saw was Wingate. Smiling."

But there also was heartbreak. Wingate's mother, Mattie, died in 1984. She was 54 and had spent nearly the last third of her life in a wheelchair, battling multiple sclerosis. Although she apparently took great joy in her son's athletic career, she rarely had the opportunity to see him play. But she was an inspiration to her son. Wingate still can recall vividly the first time she saw him play, when she was wheeled into the Baltimore Arena to witness his final game at Dunbar.

"My mom was the one who carried the big stick in the house," Wingate said. "She set down the rules."

Even now, Wingate finds it difficult to discuss his mother's death.

"You just know not to ask him about it," said Williams, a member of the Spurs who has played seven years with Wingate.

After four seasons at Georgetown, Wingate was pegged a borderline NBA player, selected by the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round (44th pick overall) of the 1986 college draft. But with his speed and savvy, he earned a place on the roster.

Progress and distractions

He made steady progress through two seasons. A 28-point burst against Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls was his highlight. But injuries and off-court distractions eventually sidetracked him during his third season.

John Nash, who was the general manager of the 76ers before joining the Washington Bullets this year, said the team received complaints of all-night parties from Wingate's Philadelphia landlord. The club also became disenchanted with Wingate's work habits.

"We knew that he drank, and we knew he had a tendency to stay out late," Nash said. "We talked to him about this. He indicated he was going to keep things under control and focus on his career, and that what he was doing wasn't anything unusual for a 23- or 24-year-old guy. He frequented clubs and associated with a lot of young women, which, in and of itself, is not wrong.

"It was a case of making sure he was where he was to be on time. We had more of a problem with David just being responsible, making his appointments on time, be they therapy for injuries or practice. David was one who would arrive at the last minute or a few minutes late, and in our league, you don't do that."

Wingate said he grew tired of therapy to heal a damaged knee, which eventually required two operations. He also defended his choice of friends, whom he had known since growing up in Baltimore. But he maintained he adapted to the NBA lifestyle, a non-stop road trip through airports and arenas.

"I had the same friends my first year, when nothing was said, as I had in my second year," he said. "After I got hurt, that's when people picked out problems."

In August 1989, Wingate and Maurice Cheeks were traded to the Spurs for Chris Welp and Johnny Dawkins. Brown, the Spurs coach, said one of the keys to the trade was that it enabled Wingate to leave behind longtime friends in Baltimore.

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