Coaching keeps Booth still thinking forward

Terps: The first-year assistant is not at home dwelling on his successful Maryland playing career.

On The Bench

March 04, 2005|By Jeff Zrebiec | Jeff Zrebiec,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK - The walls in Keith Booth's Comcast Center office pay homage to the University of Maryland's basketball tradition.

Joe Smith, Booth's former teammate and one of two Terrapins to be selected No. 1 overall in the NBA draft, is pictured on the wall closest to Booth's desk. Photos of former Terps Steve Francis, Lonny Baxter and Juan Dixon are prominently displayed in other places. And on nearly every wall is a celebration of the Terps' 2002 national championship.

But aside from one framed action photo from Booth's days as a Terp, which was in the office long before he became a first-year assistant coach at his alma mater, the basketball career of Gary Williams' most important recruit goes undocumented.

Booth, who views his transition into coaching as a new beginning, wants it that way.

"The career that I had here and playing in the NBA, those are things that these players probably don't care about," said Booth, who replaced Matt Kovarik as the Terps' third assistant in July. "I'm not the type of person to dwell on that stuff. I don't dwell on the past."

Booth, 30, looked back, long enough to acknowledge that things have now come full circle, even if it has been a circuitous route back to College Park.

In 1997, Booth, the former Dunbar star, was a first-round draft pick of the Chicago Bulls after an All-American senior season at Maryland. He signed a three-year guaranteed deal worth $1.7 million and celebrated a world championship with Michael Jordan and the rest of the Bulls in his rookie season. A year later, however, Booth, believed to be too small to play in the post and not a consistent enough shooter to play guard, was out of the NBA.

He tried briefly to resuscitate his career, returning home to play for the Baltimore BayRunners of the International Basketball League. That ended after about a month and a half, when he was released following an argument with his head coach.

Then came the epiphany, which Norma Salmon said her son made quickly and painlessly.

"He said, `Mom, I'm getting tired of all this,' and that was the end of it [the conversation]," Salmon said.

Booth said: "That situation [with the BayRunners], I ask myself, `Was I really prepared for that?' It was definitely a learning experience. As a player, everybody would like to have a 10-, 15-year career in the NBA but you have to look at reality, too."

Booth returned to College Park during the summer of 2003, and finalized his degree in criminology and criminal justice. He continued his summer basketball camps for city kids at Dunbar and volunteered to run Dunbar's Academic Athletic Academy, an after-school program to bolster athletes struggling in the classroom.

"He was just like us, having fun, joking around, but when it got down to schoolwork, he was real serious," said Dunbar senior Nathan Irby, The Sun's All-Metro Offensive Player of the Year in football last fall. "A few of the guys, he sat them down, talked to them and got their heads straight. The place he's at, the places he's been to, how he made it, he's one of our role models."

Booth spent last year as a physical education teacher at the Park School in Baltimore County. There, he was also an assistant middle school baseball coach, known as "Coach Keith," by his players, who were stunned to have a former NBA player as a third-base coach.

"When he applied for the job, we were like, `Why do you want to work at Park School?' " said Robin Cardin Lowe, Park's physical education chair. "But he came in, did his job, worked really hard and loved helping and teaching kids. Everything he said to them was like gold."

Booth scoffed at the notion that such a job was below him.

"I just really enjoy working with kids," said Booth, who was on the Terps' team that started the 11-year NCAA tournament streak that likely will be extended if Maryland wins tomorrow at Virginia Tech. "People can say or think whatever they want, as long as I'm enjoying what I'm doing."

In Booth, Williams has an assistant whom he wants his "players to emulate." Booth didn't miss a practice his entire time at Maryland, and current Terps, who followed some of the forward's career on television, say that Booth is as intense and focused as he was as a player.

"The way he played is how he coaches," said Terps senior Mike Grinnon. "His work ethic and discipline really come out."

Williams doesn't designate specific responsibilities to certain assistants because he wants all of them involved in every aspect of coaching. It, however, is no secret that Booth gives the Terps a huge recruiting presence in Baltimore, where he is still revered like he is in College Park (Terps fans still howl "Boooooooth" when his name is announced).

Recruiting analysts and area coaches say that the talent in the Baltimore metro area - specifically in the lower grades - is as good as it's been in years.

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