Dudes who play with 'tudes

Basketball: Playing with attitude is nothing new for natives of Baltimore, where tough-guy reputations and physical styles are quite common.

March 16, 2000|By Paul McMullen | Paul McMullen,SUN STAFF

MINNEAPOLIS -- Scorers should be nice to point guards, the guys who get them the ball.

That wasn't the case in the St. John's locker room at Madison Square Garden last Friday night. The site of some epic boxing matches had another intriguing fight, as Erick Barkley questioned the defensive commitment of Bootsy Thornton, and the two reportedly came to blows.

Before this college basketball season, Maryland's Juan Dixon was breaking bad. He's buddies with Steve Blake now, but the two tested each other last September. They had to be separated after a Dixon elbow gave the freshman a black eye during a pickup game at Cole Field House.

Dixon, an All-Atlantic Coast Conference choice, and Thornton, the MVP in the Big East tournament, have more in common than being overachievers. Their cantankerousness is based in Baltimore, where toughness apparently matters more than size. Where else do the kids look down at their role models, instead of up?

"I grew up challenging my brother Phil, but the one guy I always looked up to was Shawnta Rogers," Dixon said. "He played so much bigger than he was. Tough, tough guy."

Rogers, who plays for the BayRunners in the International Basketball League, came out of Lake Clifton and left a huge mark at George Washington. He was the Atlantic 10 Player of the Year for the 1998-99 season.

He's 5 feet 4, by the way.

Baltimore became known as the land of little big men in the early 1980s, when Dunbar High had some remarkable teams. Reggie Williams, David Wingate and Reggie Lewis were sleek talents, but the Poets' undisputed leader was stocky Muggsy Bogues, who is still 5-3, and still playing in the NBA, for the Toronto Raptors.

"I watched him Sunday on TV, playing against Seattle," Bob Wade said. "Muggsy remains incredible. He's still able to get his shot off.

"Look at Sam Cassell, another guy who was able to create his own shot. I don't think it's a coincidence that some of the players we're talking about developed that ability. You see a tremendous resiliency in the Baltimore kids. It's a tribute to the inner-city kid. I find them to be very strong under pressure."

Wade is the director of interscholastic sports in Baltimore City. He was the coach at Maryland before Gary Williams, who cites a signing he made in 1993 as a turning point for the Terps. He referred not to Joe Smith, but to Keith Booth, a power forward who became All-ACC -- at just 6-5.

"Getting Keith Booth was the key for me. It allowed me to go statewide," Williams said. "Keith wasn't the most talented guy, but he's probably the toughest, most durable player I've ever had. That rubs off on other people. We faced North Carolina with Kevin Salvadori and Eric Montross, and Keith said, `I'll take Montross.' He knew Montross was the more physical player."

Besides working the low post for the defending NCAA champions, Montross also happened to have five inches on Booth.

Marvin Webster went from Edmondson High to Morgan State in the early 1970s and made his mark -- or cleaned up, if you prefer -- as the Human Eraser. Baltimore has developed few quality big men since, however, and Booth and running mate Donta Bright thrived as inside players for Dunbar's last national championship team.

Like Booth, Bright was an undersized baseline artist for Massachusetts, when it gave Kentucky its stiffest challenge in the 1996 NCAA tournament. The grit that allowed them to bang against bigger bodies might have hurt them in the long run, because all that time in the paint meant less on the perimeter, refining their jump shots.

Thornton and Temple's Mark Karcher, one of the reasons the Owls are the last team in the East on so many NCAA pools, thrived as inside players at Dunbar and St. Frances, respectively, but made the transition to capable jump shooters. Along with Dixon and Miami's Johnny Hemsley (Southern), they are among the nation's most dangerous wings.

Thornton outplayed multimillionaire Steve Francis in the Sweet 16 last season, and quieted the Crazies at Cameron Indoor Stadium last month.

Gee. So did Dixon.

Karcher, Thornton and Dixon (Calvert Hall) did not immediately meet the NCAA's standards for freshman eligibility, but players their age did get a basketball education in an environment where only the strong survive.

"Baltimore is like most major cities," Williams said. "A lot of guys who never went to college became good players when they were 26, 27 years old. They're good enough to be Division I players, but by then it's too late. The younger kids get a chance to play against men, and it's a great mentoring system."

Players like Thornton, Dixon and his friend at Georgetown, Kevin Braswell (Lake Clifton), who showed his resolve in last night's triple-overtime NIT win over Virginia, are wringing every drop out of their talent.

They come from a generation in which everyone knows someone who has lost a friend or family member to drugs or violence. Whether on a more anonymous court or at the "Dome" at Madison Square, some acquire an edge that is a reminder of how hard it is to be a saint in the city.

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