Former standout Keith Booth ready to lead Dunbar basketball

by Derek Toney

From sneaking into Dunbar High gymnasium as a little kid to watch the iconic basketball teams of the 1980s to running nearly a mile in the snow in boots to the school as a way to keep in shape, Keith Booth has  understood the meaning of being a Dunbar basketball player.

Now, Booth is the steward of the storied Baltimore City program. The former standout is back at his alma-mater as coach.

“For me, personally, it’s full circle, but at the same time, it’s about the kids today,” he said. “My experiences overall, to look in their eyes, I see myself.”

With his new team, past Dunbar coaches and teammates and several longtime Poet fans in attendance, Booth was formally introduced May 23 in the school’s library. He replaces Cyrus “Diego” Jones, his teammate on the Poets’ 1991-92 national championship team.

Jones stepped down in March after 12 seasons, winning five state championship and two city titles.

Booth humbly accepted the challenge of following in the footsteps of past Poet coaches like Jones, Bob Wade, Sugar Cain and Pete Pompey, who coached Booth.

It was full circle for Booth, who 25 years earlier, sat a table in a corner of Dunbar’s fabled gymnasium, and signed a national letter of intent with the University of Maryland.

Booth became an All-American in his senior season in College Park, where he finished in the Top 10 in career free throws and rebounding. He was selected 28th overall by the Chicago Bulls in the 1997 NBA draft. Booth played in 45 games in two seasons, earning a championship ring in 1998.

His coaching career started at Maryland as an assistant under Gary Williams for seven seasons. Booth moved to Loyola University where he was an assistant for women’s and men’s team. Most recently, Booth coached for the Team Thrill AAU program founded by former Lake Clifton standout and current Denver Nugget Will Barton.

Though Booth played and or coached under Williams and Phil Jackson, both Naismith Basketball Hall of Famers, he said Bucky Lee and Henry “Sarge” Powell, who coached him at the Madison Square Rec Center in east Baltimore, instilled confidence.

“Coach Sarge always said it’s hard to work hard if you don’t like what you do,” said Booth. “I fell in love with basketball at a young age and they saw that. They were willing to push me harder and it’s something that to this day I’m grateful for.”

Donta’ Bright, who was a McDonald’s All-American in the Poets’ 1991-92 national title season, is excited about having Booth back at the Orleans Street school.

“He’s back in the community. He’s going to put the pride back into Dunbar,” said Bright, who led UMASS to the Final Four in 1996.

With Bright, Booth, Michael Lloyd, Jones and Paul Banks (Poet assistant during Jones’ coaching tenure), Dunbar went 29-0 and claimed a third mythical national title (won in 1983 and 1985). As a senior, Booth, a McDonald’s All-American, led Dunbar to the first of 16 state public championships.

The Poets are no longer the local and national powerhouse they were in the 1980s through the mid-1990s. Several players have transferred over the last couple of years, something that was unheard of during Dunbar’s golden era.

Booth knows the local high school basketball landscape has changed since he left Dunbar as a player.

“As a coach, if I’m constantly communicating, ‘here’s how we’re going to develop you as a student, here’s how we’re going to help you get better as an athlete.’” said Booth.  “If somebody can come in between that year-round communication and the family decide they still don’t want their child to be here, we have to let them to go.

Dunbar hasn’t always been for everybody, but the ones it was for, not only the athletes, are doing well in life and live by the Dunbar standard.”

Booth is conducting individual workouts with the returning Poet players. He hopes to have  is coaching staff in place in the coming weeks.

“I know we have a long journey ahead of us, and at the same time it starts with one brick at a time,” said Booth. “So it’s important for me as a leader, as the head coach to let these guys know how valuable each and every one of them are.”

Pictured above: Keith Booth (in hat) poses with former Dunbar boys basketball assistant Paul Holmes (left), former head coaches Bob Wade and Diego Jones, Dunbar principal Tammy Mays, Dunbar athletic director Dana Johnson and Booth’s former Dunbar teammate Donta’ Bright, at his introductory press conference. The former Dunbar and University of Maryland star is back at his alma-mater as the new basketball coach.