Reggie Holmes, Baltimore (St. Frances) (Baltimore Sun photo by Gene…)
During a Christmas tournament in Kevin Thompson's senior year at Walbrook High, the precocious center tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. The way Kevin Thompson Sr. remembers it, the Division I recruiting letters trickled to a halt almost immediately.
Todd Bozeman, who had arrived in Baltimore one year before, was the recruiting exception. The Morgan State coach saw beyond the knee injury and perhaps all the way to last weekend's championship victory in the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference.
The 6-foot-8 Thompson rewarded Bozeman's vision with a 45-point, 34-rebound performance over three games that earned him the Outstanding Performer Award in the MEAC tournament, propelling Morgan to its second straight NCAA tournament appearance. On another level, though, it was confirmation that Bozeman's plan to recruit heavily in the Baltimore area had paid off handsomely.
When the 15th-seeded Bears (27-9) take on No. 2 seed West Virginia (27-6) on Friday in Buffalo in the first round of the East Regional, there will be 10 players - including four starters - from Maryland on a 14-man roster.
With homegrown talent such as Thompson, Reggie Holmes (St. Frances) and Troy Smith (Douglass), the Bears have taken a stranglehold on the MEAC with three straight regular-season titles and two tournament titles.
Now, success breeds success. What many local high school players once viewed as a basketball wasteland is suddenly a college haven.
"The buzz is there," said Kelvin Bridgers, the retired Walbrook coach who sent Thompson to Morgan. "When you come to town to recruit players, you've got to consider Morgan State as one of the schools you have to compete with. Yes, the buzz is there."
Holmes was the first to commit when Bozeman took over at Morgan. Thompson soon followed after he experienced Bozeman's loyalty.
"That was the biggest factor," Thompson Sr. said about his son's decision to join the Bears. "Morgan never quit. I guess they saw something they liked; they were the most persistent."
But it was more than that. It was what Thompson saw when he visited Morgan. Bridgers said Bozeman's practices are " NBA-style practices."
"One of the things that impressed Kevin most was watching the big men work out," Bridgers said. "Then he was like, 'Coach, I like Morgan.' Todd's a great teacher, and he must do a great job with the coaching staff because they're great teachers as well."
Perhaps not surprisingly, both assistants, Kevin McClain and Keith Goode, are Baltimore natives with deep roots in the inner city and strong ties to the local scene.
Over time, Morgan's team has come to embody the personality of its neighborhoods. Holmes came out of Cherry Hill, Thompson from West Baltimore and Smith from East Baltimore.
"It's a grittiness that Baltimore players have," Bozeman said during the MEAC tournament. "It comes with growing up in the city. It comes out. Cherry Hill is a tough place [to grow up in]; West Baltimore is a tough place. And it reflects in their play."
The local connection is what the Bears had been missing before Bozeman, said Floyd Kerr, the school's athletic director. Before Bozeman, Morgan had had one winning season in the previous 26 years.
"The perception was that it's not important," Kerr said. "You can get your education and have a college career at Morgan, but the expectations weren't very high. Those things had led to a disconnect between Morgan and the local community. Once that disconnect perpetuated itself over a long period of time, it sort of became part of the culture."
The recruits come now because they know Bozeman will make them better players. His long list of NBA players - starting with Jason Kidd at Cal - is proof.
"It was the fact he had dealt with a lot of pros already like Jason Kidd," Holmes said of his decision to play at Morgan. "He helped get them to the next level. He told me if I worked hard, good things would happen."
The Bears work hard under Bozeman and celebrate the success.
"We win because we operate like a big-time program," Smith said. "If nothing else, we'll always be prepared. He brought preparation and the needed focus to win."
Bozeman went to Glen Burnie to get Rodney Stokes, Bowie to get MEAC Rookie of the Year DeWayne Jackson, Clinton to get Sean Thomas and Woodlawn for Danny Smith.
But Bozeman doesn't limit himself.
"This is a mid-major heaven," he said. "Baltimore, D.C., Virginia - and then throw in Philadelphia and just parts of New York City, and it's a mid-major heaven. There are so many players here."
Ticket books for Morgan State's NCAA tournament East Region first-round game against second-seeded West Virginia may be purchased today from noon to 7 p.m. Tickets can be purchased in the main athletic office. For information, call Adelaide Wilson, assistant business manager at 443-885-3830 before Wednesday and at 443-768-3603 from Wednesday to Friday.