No Bull, Booth's just happy to be there Ex-Terp sits and jTC learns, watching Jordan & Co.

November 29, 1997|By Jerry Bembry | Jerry Bembry,SUN STAFF

CHICAGO -- On this night when his Chicago Bulls' teammates were joking and celebrating, Keith Booth felt uncomfortable. Uncomfortable because, as a rookie, he was odd man out as the Bulls received their rings for winning the 1997 NBA title.

So as the eager Bulls lined up in the tunnel just before the #F ceremony, Booth stood off to the side and out of the way. Michael Jordan, in the midst of cracking jokes, spotted Booth and sensed the awkwardness.

"Hey, KB," Jordan said, getting Booth's attention. "Don't worry about it, kid. We'll get you one."

,3 Booth laughs a little as he retells the story, as if he still has a

hard time believing the good fortune that has come his way. Expected to be a second-round draft pick and an NBA long shot, Booth was instead drafted with the final pick of the first round -- a position that earned him a three-year, guaranteed contract. By the champs, no less.

The former Dunbar star gets to play with the most dominant team in professional basketball during the 1990s. He pals around with Scottie Pippen. He has the game's greatest player, Jordan, promising him a championship ring.

Still, Booth has broken a sweat carrying equipment bags off team buses more often than he has handling the ball on the court in games. He'll be close to home tonight as the Bulls travel to play the Washington Wizards in the last NBA game at US Airways Arena, but he won't be playing.

He started the season on the injured list, and when he came off he logged just 12 minutes in the three games he was fortunate to play for a Bulls team that -- with Pippen recovering from back surgery -- has struggled. Booth went back on the injured list last week, his lower back coincidentally getting sore at the same time that Bill Wennington was ready to come off the injured list with a sore right elbow.

Does it bother Booth -- who never missed a practice or a game in his four years at Maryland -- that he's not playing? Does he feel slighted that the snazzy new Chicago Bulls media guide lacks a page on their first-round pick?

Not at all. You see, Booth is glad to be in Chicago. He views his current status as an apprenticeship, an opportunity to be groomed by the best in the game. Eventually, he hopes to develop into the player that many felt he could never be.

"My minutes are very limited this year, but I look at this as a learning experience," Booth said. "And what better place to learn than from guys like a Scottie Pippen or a Michael Jordan?

"If you look at my career at Dunbar, I had to wait my turn. And I had to wait my turn at Maryland," Booth said. "The way I look at it here, if I continue to work hard day in and day out, and year in and year out, then eventually everything will fall into place."

Then, with a huge smile, Booth said:

"Besides, right now I bet there are a lot of rookies that would like to be in my position."

Profitable pick

Certainly, Serge Zwikker would like to be in Booth's position. As the 29th pick in the draft, or the first pick of the second round, Zwikker, the former North Carolina center, had no guarantees and isn't in the league. Booth, selected one pick earlier as the final selection of the first round, has a contract that is guaranteed over three years, paying a total of $1.719 million.

"It is definitely a blessing," said Booth, when asked about the financial implications of where he was selected. "A lot of hard work has gone into all of this, and I'm definitely starting to see the fruits of it. There's a lot of self-gratification for the simple fact that there was nothing that was ever really given to me."

In making it to the NBA, Booth joins fellow Dunbar standouts Muggsy Bogues, Reggie Williams, Sam Cassell and David Wingate. There are a number of former Baltimore standouts -- including Dunbar teammates Michael Lloyd and Donta Bright -- who have not made it.

"There are a lot of guys that I played with in high school, where talent-wise there isn't a lot that separates them from me," Booth said. "Fortunately for me, I did everything the right way in terms of doing well in school and trying to work on my game."

Along the way Booth also received a lot of advice from Cassell, a fellow East Baltimorean who won two championship rings with the Houston Rockets.

"He came the long road, from prep school to junior college and then to Florida State and he stuck with it," Booth said. "I remember right after he won his first ring, we played together in the Urban Coalition. All the money and success was new to him and he told me, 'Just work hard. There's a pot of gold for you at the end of the rainbow.' And that always stuck with me."

What also stuck with Booth were the critics.

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