Baltimore's streets run all way to Bowie

College basketball: Coach Luke D'Alessio's connections to the city and area have been critical in building the Bulldogs into a 23-4 power.

College Basketball

February 27, 2003|By Kent Baker | Kent Baker,SUN STAFF

BOWIE -- Most of them were raised in streetwise environments in which the refinement of their basketball skills wasn't always a priority.

They arrived at Bowie State via circuitous routes, first joining either junior colleges or Division I programs that failed to fulfill their heady dreams.

But the team's Baltimore connection can still realize some lofty aspirations beginning today when the Bulldogs enter the Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association men's tournament in Raleigh, N.C., bent on making postseason waves at the Division II level.

Undoubtedly, all-CIAA big men Tim Washington and Jon Smith form the heart of the 23-4 Bulldogs, who rose as high as eighth nationally in the Division II poll before a late-season skid dropped them to No. 23. But many of the players who helped them become a lock for the NCAA tournament were weaned on Baltimore courts.

Coach Luke D'Alessio is partial to the city's players after six successful seasons at the CCBC-Catonsville, where his team won three Maryland JuCo titles, a noteworthy feat in a state that has such nationally recognized powers as Allegany and Hagerstown.

"Anybody who can play through Baltimore is as good as they get," D'Alessio said. "If they do their schoolwork and do what you ask them, players don't come any better, because basketball means so much to them.

"A lot of them come through from tough family -- often single-parent -- situations and basketball is how they can get off the streets."

Four Baltimoreans are prominent figures in Bowie's grand scheme: point guard Cornelius McMurray (Southwestern), guard Omarr Smith (City), primary frontcourt reserve Shawn Hampton (St. Frances) and third guard Arthur Lewis (Milford Mill). A fifth, Nathaniel Fields (Southern-Baltimore), has been dogged by injuries, but is a valuable reserve and practice player.

Other than the obvious contacts he made while working at Catonsville, why does the coach favor Baltimore's talent?

"I think he knows we never give up," said Smith, who played one year at Catonsville, sat out a season and has been at Bowie for the past three. "When you are growing up playing around Baltimore, you have to compete real hard, even though you're going against friends. You have to hold your own or be left out."

"Luke knows what it takes for a Baltimore player to make it out of town because he coached there," McMurray said. "If they get a shot, they're going to make it. To fail is to go back to the streets. The toughest challenge is growing up; the basketball is the easy part."

"He knows Baltimore players are hard-nosed and will give him all we've got," said Hampton, who prepped with two-time All-Metro Player of the Year Mark Karcher. "If the coach says run through a brick wall, that's what we're going to do."

Added Lewis: "They already looked down on me because I'm from the county. So I had to really play hard all the time. Luke believes in Baltimore players because they helped him turn things around at Catonsville."

Lewis, whose mother teaches at Cross Country Elementary School, played for D'Alessio at Catonsville and followed the coach (and some friends) to Bowie, which was then a losing program. All the school's winning records have been set the last two seasons.

"A lot of people didn't think Arthur was good enough, but he is the hardest worker there is," D'Alessio said.

McMurray, who played on a 27-0 state champion at Southwestern, dropped out of high school for one year to care for his daughter and eventually landed at Bacone (Okla.) Junior College, which was ranked No. 3 in the nation with him playing the strange position of point guard and averaging 16.8 points.

But his mother, Regina Phillips, became gravely ill with lupus and he returned home to sit out another season. Through Rod Harrison, a former player for D'Alessio who has steered a number of players to the coach, McMurray landed at Bowie.

Being in Division II didn't bother him a bit.

"Four others had come here from Division I programs and I automatically felt the competitive level," McMurray said. "We've got five or six players here who can get 20 points any night. I had to prove I had learned how to sacrifice."

Fortunately, he had already solved that problem at Bacone, where "we played in the toughest JuCo conference in the country and had the toughest players."

Perhaps no one on the roster is more competitive than McMurray, whom D'Alessio suspended for the final two regular-season games after an emotional outburst during an ugly loss at St. Paul's.

"I was venting on Luke," said the player. "He had to take some discipline."

It was in a stressful environment with no security and fans running onto the court. "It got out of hand," said D'Alessio. "Cornelius wants to win so bad and all his emotions came out. He started kicking things. You just can't lose control like that."

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