Poets' Booth finds own bright lights LITTLE COUSIN, BIG STAR

January 21, 1993|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,Staff Writer

Donta's little cousin.

For Keith Booth, those three words were a label he never could seem to shake. He picked it up years ago, when he began tagging along with his cousin, Donta Bright. It stuck with him through last season, when, side by side, the cousins helped lead Dunbar High School to a national title.

No matter what he did, how much he accomplished, Booth always was Donta's little cousin.

"That's what everybody used to call me," Booth said. "I got no recognition at all. Everybody would talk about Donta, and I'd think, 'I'd like to be just like that.' "

Bright, who is a year older, was The Baltimore Sun Player of the Year as a senior last season, and he is sitting out this year as a Proposition 48 freshman at the University of Massachusetts. Booth and Bright are extremely close.

"I've always been known as Donta's little cousin, and I had no problem with that, because he's a great player," Booth said. "But I just thought it was time that people knew me as Keith Booth."

As the best player on one of the nation's highest-profile basketball teams, Booth is finding out that there is no longer an identity crisis.

College recruiters long have known him as Keith Booth. Practically every big-time college basketball program in the country has addressed letters to him, letters that pack a 120-pound box in his bedroom.

Opposing high school coaches long have known him as Keith Booth, for not just anybody can post the Magic-like numbers of 24.1 points, 9.1 rebounds and 9.4 assists per game.

Now, everybody knows who Keith Booth is. People shout his name when he's with friends at his favorite hangouts, the Inner Harbor and the Gallery. He can't go to a movie without someone approaching. And a simple walk from Dunbar to his home in the Highlandtown section of East Baltimore typically results in his being stopped by strangers -- adults and kids -- who just want to talk. Just want to touch him.

So how does it feel not to have to stand in anyone's shadow?

"Sometimes," Booth said, pausing, "sometimes it's hard to be Keith Booth."

Comfortable on court

The difficulty of being Keith Booth is the attention he receives off the court. Most times on the court, Booth is very much at ease -- and very much in command.

A year ago, the Poets had three marquee players in Booth, Bright and Michael Lloyd, but there is just one go-to guy on this season's squad. That has put a tremendous amount of pressure on Booth, a 6-foot-7, 210-pound forward, as was evident in last weekend's Charm City Classic, where opponents focused their defenses on him and limited the All-American to 15 points in two games.

The only starter returning from last season's national championship team, Booth can appear forced to maintain Dunbar's prominence almost single-handedly.

"This is a team, but since we lost [Lloyd and Bright], I know I have to step up in big games," Booth said. "I take it as the coaches and my teammates having confidence in me. It's well-deserved -- I've worked hard both on and off the court to get to this point."

That point is a long way from 10 years ago when, Booth said, "I couldn't lay the ball in, I couldn't play defense, I couldn't do anything." But Booth tagged along with Bright, who, at a young age, possessed the skills of a future star. So Booth's game began to catch up with his growing, lanky frame.

"By the time I got to the ninth grade," Booth said, "I knew I had a chance to be a good player."

That season, Booth was a key contributor off the bench for a team that finished 22-4. By the end of his sophomore season, he was an All-Metro player for a 27-1 team, averaging 14.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists in an effortless style that opened the eyes of recruiters. Last season, Booth was second on the team in scoring (19.5) and tops in rebounding (11.8) in helping the Poets to the national title.

This season, Booth has had to demonstrate even more of his skills. If Dunbar is having problems against the full-court press, he's the point man. If the Poets need low-post scoring, Booth gets the ball in the pivot. Need an assist? It's Booth who has the court savvy and experience to find the open man.

"[He's] one of the most versatile players in the country," said Bob Gibbons, who heads the All-Star Sports scouting service. "He literally can play all five positions. He's very much in control, and he makes great decisions."

Added Dunbar coach Pete Pompey: "The guy can do just so many things. He's going to be a great, great player on the next level."

In the spotlight

On the court, Booth can control the tempo, control an opposing player, even control a game.

Off the court, he has no control over how people react to his stardom.

"I was taking a driver's education test, and the teacher didn't know who I was," Booth said. "Apparently, she saw me on TV, and came back the next night and said: 'Is this the Keith Booth at Dunbar High School? Have I been teaching Keith Booth how to drive a car?' "

Booth finds himself always in the spotlight.

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