EMMITSBURG -- Few professional athletes have taken a more tortuous journey home than David Wingate, the former Dunbar High and Georgetown basketball star who signed a non-guaranteed contract with the Washington Bullets yesterday morning.
Wingate reported for the opening of training camp at Mount St. Mary's College along with seven other free agents, but it was obvious by all the media attention that the native Baltimorean was a special case.
"He knows one false step and he's finished," said Bullets owner Abe Pollin. "He knows he's on trial."
Added general manager John Nash, "His credibility as a basketball player is at stake, and he also has to redeem himself with theBaltimore-Washington community."
For Wingate, a five-year NBA veteran, it is no longer enough to prove himself as an athlete, but also, in Nash's words, to be "a model citizen."
Last September within a three-day span, Wingate, 27, was accused of rape by a 22-year-old woman in San Antonio, when he was still a member of the San Antonio Spurs, and by a 17-year-old Maryland girl at his apartment in Columbia.
Both charges were ultimately dropped. Wingate settled his civil suit in Texas, and the Maryland girl's family chose not to press the indictment by the Howard County grand jury.
By last March, the 6-foot-5 guard was back in a Spurs uniform and played in 25 games as a key reserve. But this summer, when Wingate faced a paternity suit in San Antonio, the Spurs decided not to re-sign him.
"Coach [Larry] Brown wasn't even in town when it happened," Wingate said. "Letting me go had nothing to do with my basketball ability. The Spurs just felt I needed a change of scenery."
After impressing NBA scouts in the Los Angeles Summer League, he received tryout offers from the Bullets, New York Knicks, Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers, but it was an easy choice for Wingate, who has a new agent, James Myart of San Antonio.
"I've always wanted to play for the Bullets, and [coach] Wes Unseld's uptempo style is the way I like to play. I know I belong in the league. People know I can play, but my past problems have prohibited me a lot from basketball. Now that's all behind me. I just want to play ball and get on with my life."
The Bullets needed an experienced, defensive-minded guard to replace Darrell Walker, who was recently traded to the Detroit Pistons for two second-round draft picks.
"We looked at all the available free-agent guards, and Wingate was at the top of our list," said Nash, who, when he was general manager of the Philadelphia 76ers in 1986, signed Wingate as a second-round draft choice out of Georgetown.
After two seasons with the 76ers, he was traded to the Spurs with guard Maurice Cheeks and center Christian Welp for guard Johnny Dawkins and forward Jay Vincent.
"For a second-round pick, Wingate has had a hell of a career," said Nash. "He is a terrific athlete who has good size and excellent defensive ability. The tragedy is that, without his personal problems, he could have become much better than an average player."
In re-signing Wingate, Nash realized this time there were also moral and ethical considerations. He and Unseld held lengthy discussions with Wingate over the past few months before informing Pollin on Friday of their desire to sign him.
"I respect that there are a number of negatives David will have to overcome," said Nash. "He was acquitted of all charges, but he still has something to prove to himself, to his community and his family."
Wingate, who recently became engaged to Tyra Holland of Columbia, has no illusions about his shaky status in the NBA.
"I've been playing under pressure all my life," he said. "I've faceda lot of stones and obstacles along the way."
Asked if he had learned from his misadventures, he said: "If you don't learn from what I've been through, you have to be very stupid. You know who to be with and not to be with, and you tend to shy away from certain people."
Asked if he felt more secure playing closer to home, Wingate said: "My family was always been behind me 100 percent and still are. I also have friends from Georgetown and back in Baltimore who support and encourage me.
"I'm still young, and I have to enjoy life."
NOTES: F Harvey Grant and F Tom Hammonds were the 2 Bullets veterans who reported 3 days early. Grant, seeking a sizable raise in a contract extension, said his agent, Jimmy Sexton of Memphis, had met with Nash yesterday and made progress on an agreement. "If I want to make trouble [over the contract], I won't hurt anyone but myself," said Grant, "I don't want the young players in camp to see me upset." Hammonds took a spill under the basket and hyper-extended his right knee, but he is not expected to miss practice today. Marty Dow, a 7-foot free-agent center from San Diego State, sat out the opening drills with a hamstring pull.