Amenities change, but Booth pro all way

November 19, 1999|By Ken Rosenthal

The day Keith Booth signed with the Baltimore BayRunners, he made an immediate impression by arriving at the team's offices in a suit.

Booth, the owner of an NBA championship ring from the Chicago Bulls, wasn't trying to act like he was above the International Basketball League.

Quite the contrary -- he was trying to project the image of a young man who is serious about reviving his career, and willing to sacrifice his NBA dream for one season.

"When I was in college and high school, I couldn't afford suits," Booth said after practice the other day. "Now, I look at myself as being a professional man.

"When I went to sign my contract, I was meeting the coaches, meeting the BayRunners' staff. Just like when you go for any job interview, you want to present yourself in a way you want to be viewed.

"I consider myself a basketball player -- a professional basketball player."

And the BayRunners were his professional choice.

The BayRunners, whose training camp is at the Run 'n Shoot Athletic Center, part of a shopping plaza in District Heights.

The BayRunners, who will play at the outdated Baltimore Arena, albeit on a new floor.

The BayRunners, who offer nothing more than the promise of an expansion team in a minor league.

It's a long way from the United Center, from the five-star hotels, from the electric atmosphere that surrounded the Bulls when they still had Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and coach Phil Jackson in Booth's rookie season.

But it suits Booth just fine.

He's back home, playing with former Dunbar High and Maryland teammate Rodney Elliott and fellow Baltimore natives Kurk Lee, Shawnta Rogers and Sean Tyson. BayRunners coach Herb Brown sees Booth "recapturing his passion" for the game after two years of sitting on the Chicago bench.

"He's one of the smart ones," Brown said. "He doesn't need a 10-day contract to satisfy his ego. He knows he needs a year of basketball, getting to play 64 games."

Booth, 25, said he had offers to play in Europe after getting cut by the Bulls on Sept. 22. He said he also had an offer to play in the Continental Basketball Association, the developmental league that offers a direct pipeline to the NBA.

"If my focus was on playing in the NBA this year, I probably would have gone to the CBA," Booth said. "But my focus is to get better as a player and let everything take care of itself.

"If I went to the CBA for a year and got called up, it would be because a guy got injured. Once a guy comes back, nine times out of 10, you get sent back down. But I'm just concentrating on getting better. I'm not even worrying about the NBA this year."

It helps that Booth will be paid by the Bulls this season, under the final guaranteed year of his three-year, $1.719 million contract. His $573,000 average salary with the Bulls is greater than the BayRunners' entire $522,000 payroll. The IBL pay scale ranges from $20,000 to $80,000.

Then again, if you know Booth, you know this isn't strictly about money. He's no different than he was when he defied his East Baltimore community to attend Maryland, no different than he was when he made first-team, All-ACC as a 6-foot-6 power forward.

Upbeat. Unfazed. And utterly unafraid.

"He thinks, in his mind, that he's going to get back to the league," said Booth's former coach at Maryland, Gary Williams. "And I really believe that there are NBA teams that right now need what Keith can do."

If Laron Profit can play for Washington and Obinna Ekezie for Vancouver, there certainly should be a place for Booth, who was far superior to those two at Maryland, even if he lacks an obvious position in the NBA. But it's not like Booth to express bitterness or even discontent. Even in negative situations, he sees the positive.

Getting cut by the Bulls?

"It was tough -- that's the first time in my life that ever happened," Booth said. "But there's a saying, when one door shuts, another door opens. I feel very fortunate to come back home and play with players I'm comfortable with, and in an environment I'm comfortable with, especially at this point of my career."

Riding buses and staying in low-budget hotels?

"It's definitely an adjustment," Booth said. "When you play with the Bulls, you fly everywhere. Now, everything is going to be bus trips. But that's all understandable. Regardless of the situation, if you want to get better as a player, you've got to take all that comes with it. It doesn't matter to me."

The idea of being a "marked man" in the IBL because of his NBA contract?

"You have guys in this league, guys on this team, who are hungry," Booth said. "If guys are going to come after me, I take it as a challenge, look forward to it. It makes me hungry, too."

Williams said Booth worked harder in practice than any other player he has ever coached. Brown said Booth "fell into a lot of careless habits" the past two seasons, but regular playing time should correct that. Brown plans to use Booth at small forward, shooting guard and even point guard, a position he played at Dunbar.

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