As Keith Booth walked through the hallways of Dunbar High School one morning last week, some of the students gawked and others giggled. Many of them rushed up to him with pen and paper for an autograph. One girl even told Booth's mother that she was going to marry her son.
Booth, who was visiting the school along with former Dunbar teammate and current Maryland teammate Rodney Elliott, had been honored earlier there with a proclamation from the governor and words of congratulation from the mayor.
In turn, Booth told a story about growing up in East Baltimore.
"When I was 8 or 9 years old, I had a friend named Gregory Thorpe," Booth told a group of students in the school's library. "We would talk about our goals. My goal was to be the next big basketball player from Baltimore. His goal was to be the next big drug dealer."
"We both accomplished our goals," he said.
Booth would go on to talk about receiving a telephone call from his sister early during his sophomore year in College Park. The news didn't come as a surprise. On the very same steps Booth and his friend had shared their childhood dreams, Thorpe had been shot to death.
"Growing up where we did, that's all around you," said Booth, 22. "Fortunately for me, my mom always stressed how important it was for me to get my education, to stay out of trouble. I was always into college basketball. That's all I wanted to be -- a college basketball player."
Booth has become much more than that in his four years at Maryland.
First, he was a symbol, the blue-chip recruit who broke the unwritten ban on Dunbar players going to Maryland that began after Ernest Graham left without a degree in 1981. Then he became an integral member of three straight NCAA tournament teams, the blue-collar guy who helped support the team's bigger names.
Now, he has become what many believed he would be when he left Dunbar: a star.
If last Thursday was deemed "Keith Booth Day" by Gov. Parris N. Glendening in the state of Maryland, then tonight should be "Keith Booth Night" in Baltimore. Booth will return for his fourth and final visit to Baltimore Arena as a college player when the seventh-ranked Terrapins play Penn at 8 p.m.
"When you go to college, you don't know if you're going to get the opportunity to come back and play in front of your hometown crowd," Booth said last week, sitting in the library at Dunbar. "I've been very fortunate. I've played here every year I've been at Maryland."
In many ways, Booth's career at Maryland has mirrored his career at Dunbar. In high school, he was a year behind a class that included two other talented players: his first cousin and best friend, Donta Bright, and Michael Lloyd. The Poets won the mythical national championship in Booth's junior year.
As a Terrapin, Booth played his first two years in the rather imposing shadow of classmate Joe Smith, who would leave in spring 1995 to become the first player taken in the NBA draft after leading Maryland to successive appearances in the NCAA tournament's Sweet 16. With last season's four seniors gone, too, this has become Booth's team.
"He's been a true leader," said sophomore center Obinna Ekezie. "He's a model for what a senior should be and what a senior's supposed to do. That is what we lacked last year, when those guys were out for themselves. The other guys feed off Keith."
This year's Maryland team has become a reflection of Booth -- selfless, hard-working, resilient. And confident, to be sure. Booth's confidence has always been obvious, from the time he handled the ball against Georgetown's pressure defense in his first college game.
As his mother, Norma Salmon, said of her son recently: "He always knew he was The Man. He just had to wait his turn."
As a player, Booth always has worked to eliminate his deficiencies. He went from being a 58 percent free-throw shooter as a freshman to nearly 76 percent last season. He expanded his shooting range so much that NBA scouts are looking at him as a more legitimate pro prospect. Though his foul trouble has hurt Maryland in its only two losses, Booth has managed to stay on the court when most needed.
Some things haven't changed. Booth came to his first practice as a freshman ready to play, and he still comes with the same mind-set. He hasn't missed a practice or a game in four years, and earlier this season broke the school record for consecutive starts. Tonight will mark the 112th straight game when Booth's name -- followed by the now-expected chant of "Boooooooooth" -- will be announced in the pre-game introductions.