Booth a pillar of strength as Terps' season crumbled

March 14, 1997|By Ken Rosenthal

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- Shane McCravy dribbled near half-court as time expired, and for perhaps the only time in his Maryland career, Keith Booth quit.

He didn't go for the steal. He didn't foul McCravy. He just walked in a little circle, shook hands with the College of Charleston players, then left the court.

Assistant coach Jimmy Patsos put his arm around Booth as they disappeared underneath the Pyramid, but on this night, there could be no consolation.

The game was over.

Booth's season was over.

And so, sadly, was his career.

Booth had a relatively off-night in Maryland's 75-66 loss to Charleston in the first round of the NCAA tournament, but it's not his fault the Terps found themselves in such a difficult position, not his fault the season crumbled.

Terrell Stokes and Laron Profit did not start last night after breaking curfew at the ACC tournament. Obinna Ekezie took only three shots in 30 minutes. And coach Gary Williams couldn't stop his team from losing for the ninth time in 13 games.

That's two straight first-round embarrassments for the Terps. Maybe Williams should tell his players when the first practice is next fall, so they can set their watches accordingly. It's impossible to say where they'll go from here.

Keith Booth is gone.

He was the glue in the program, but not even he could prevent these overachieving Terps from coming apart. He is a good but not great player, a 6-foot-5 power forward who can do only so much.

He scored 13 of his team-high 18 points in the second half last night, grabbed a team-high nine rebounds, played the final eight minutes with four fouls.

But it wasn't enough.

Not with Maryland looking stunningly slow against a quicker opponent. Not with Profit scoring only two points in the second half after getting 14 in the first. Not with the Terps taking a season-low 12 free throws.

Booth arrived tight-lipped at the post-game news conference, his eyes moist, his body weary. But once he began talking, once he began reflecting, he was fine.

"This is the team I'll definitely remember out of all my four years at Maryland," he said. "Coming into the season, a lot of people counted us out. But we really believed in ourselves.

"In your last year, your last go-round, you want to go as far as you can. It's very disappointing to go out this way. You're never satisfied with a loss. But this is a great basketball team, regardless of what people want to say."

Well, people will say plenty, but it was typical of Booth to put a positive spin on the most troubling of defeats. He denied that the Stokes and Profit benchings were disruptive. And true to form, he praised Charleston.

In the post-game locker room, Profit buried his head in his hands. One or two players cried. Most looked stunned. Patsos, the assistant coach, was asked how Booth always remained upbeat, even in the most crushing moments.

"You know why? He always tries his best," Patsos said, forcing a smile. "I'll never forget that about that kid. He started 127 games, and he never didn't try."

Patsos said he thanked Booth for his four-year effort during their walk back to their locker room. Williams, too, spoke of his only senior starter glowingly. Booth was the Terps' noble warrior, their knight in sweaty armor.

He deserved more.

"That's his last game. That's what he'll remember," Williams said, shaking his head. "But I hope for Keith's sake he'll remember everything he did, including the first two years with Joe Smith, what a great complementary player he was. Obviously, he sacrificed."

Booth did the dirty work for Smith, and never complained. He endured underachieving seniors as a junior, mindless sophomores as a senior, and never complained.

He was the Terps' Cal Ripken, starting every game of his college career. And he fell five steals and six assists short of becoming the first player in ACC history to compile 1,700 points, 900 rebounds, 300 steals and 200 assists.

In the end, Booth's importance to the program can not be overstated. Maryland retired his No. 22, but Booth won't be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft like Joe Smith or John Lucas. Heck, he probably lacks the jump shot to make it in the pros.

He was a fine college player, but he wasn't a Len Elmore, a Buck Williams, a Len Bias. What made Booth special was his decision to attend Maryland, when so much of his East Baltimore community was opposed.

St. Frances' Mark Karcher visited College Park this season on a night Booth was the subject of a CBS profile. It made for an easy sales pitch. That's what can happen, Williams told Karcher, when a local guy makes good.

A cynic might suggest that Maryland retired Booth's number to placate East Baltimore, to ensure that he would have a happier ending than Ernie Graham, to keep the Baltimore recruits coming.

But would anyone suggest Booth is undeserving?

Of course not.

"I'm definitely satisfied with coming to the University of Maryland," Booth said. "I couldn't have made a better decision."

It's just that in the end, he deserved so much more.

Pub Date: 3/14/97

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