2010 ACC Men's Basketball Legends: Keith Booth, Maryland

Feb. 11, 2010

The 2010 ACC Basketball Legends class is a group of 12 former standout players - one from each ACC school - who will be honored during the 2010 ACC Men's Basketball Tournament. TheACC.com will feature two members of the ACC Legends Class each week during the six weeks prior to the tournament.

The annual ACC Legends Brunch will be held on Saturday, March 13 beginning at 10 a.m. Hosted by television personalities Tim Brant and Mike Hogewood, the ACC Men's Basketball Legends Brunch will be held in the in the Guilford Ballroom of the Sheraton Four Seasons Hotel.

Keith Booth stepped onto the hardwood for a game at Cole Fieldhouse 126 times while at Maryland, each time believing the Terrapins would win. Gary Williams wouldn’t let him think otherwise. They thought right 82 of those times. During the mid-1990s, Booth helped Williams bring Maryland back into the national forefront while learning to play the game he loves.

Now coaching at his alma mater under Williams, Booth is still learning from Williams as his assistant coach. Since joining the Maryland staff in 2004, Booth has had opportunities—and several of them—to understand what it takes to be a successful coach. With a goal of becoming a head coach someday, Williams gives Booth the kind of experience he will need to run his own program.

But it was something Booth gave Williams, and Maryland, nearly 17 years ago when he committed to a school just coming off probation for NCAA violations. Considered one of the top-15 recruits in the country and the No. 2 small forward, Booth was recruited by several of the nation’s top basketball programs, but narrowed his final four choices to traditional powers Kentucky, UCLA, Duke, and Maryland. “A lot of people didn’t think I would choose Maryland because it was coming off probation and a lot of people in Baltimore didn’t want me to go,” he says.” But Booth shrugged off the naysayers. From a young age he could see that Williams wanted to win, and even more importantly, that Williams would get the best out of him.

Booth is often regarded as Williams’ most important recruit because his commitment to Maryland re-opened its recruiting pipeline to talent-laden Baltimore, which previously was all but closed off following NCAA sanctions. Opening the gates to Baltimore would prove to be pivotal for the program in the future, as Williams was able to sign Juan Dixon, the school’s all-time leading scorer (2,269), who would become the centerpiece of Maryland’s run to the Final Four in 2001 and NCAA championship in 2002.

Booth’s story begins in central Baltimore, a breeding ground for some of the nation’s best basketball talent, where he learned basketball by playing against other kids—older kids—from the neighborhood. They were a lot bigger and a lot better than he was, but the opportunity to face strong competition prepared the young Booth—in ninth or 10th grade at the time, as he recalls—both mentally and physically, as well as boosting his confidence.

Attending Baltimore’s (Paul Laurence) Dunbar High School, he left the high school powerhouse a two-time champion. He helped carry on a strong tradition by leading Dunbar to the mythical 1992 high school championship by achieving a No. 1 national ranking. Playing for the Poets, he not only carried on a tradition, but started one of his own. Dunbar has produced notable alums Mugsy Bogues, Sam Cassell, and Reggie Lewis—all of which enjoyed varying degrees of success in the National Basketball Association—before Keith Booth came along and carried the torch when he played for the Chicago Bulls from 1997-99.

But Booth started his own tradition in leading Dunbar to the Maryland Class C championship. Prior to his senior year, the Baltimore City Public Schools system joined the Maryland Public Secondary School Athletic Association, allowing city schools to participate in state-wide post-season play. Booth made the most of his only opportunity by leading the Poets—guided by head coach Pete Pompey—to the first of the school’s 11 state titles over a 14 year period. Dunbar would win three more state titles in a row, capture three more championships from 1998-2001, and claim four consecutive crowns—again—from 2003-06.

As a youngster, Booth saw the success Sam Cassell—who also played at Dunbar under Pompey—had as a high school player and at Florida State, and entered Dunbar with the idea that all he had to do was listen to the wise coach, who was considered one of the best high school coaches in Baltimore. “He had a tremendous impact on me,” Booth reflects. “As a young player I was able to take advantage of him as far as trying to get better.”

In the fall of 1993, one of the best individual careers in Maryland basketball history began. Booth recalls his first game as a Terp—November 26, 1993 against area-rival Georgetown—as one of his favorite memories in College Park. “Georgetown was labeled the big school in the area as far as being nationally ranked,” says Booth. “I was nervous because I didn’t know what it was like to play at this level. It all started [as it usually did] with Coach Williams believing we could win that game.” Booth notched 12 points, five rebounds, three assists, and two steals, a respectable collegiate debut. Williams started two freshman—Booth and Joe Smith—and took an 84-83 decision from the Hoyas in an overtime thriller.

Booth finished his career with 1,776 points, which was the sixth highest total in school history at the time, but has since been surpassed by fellow Maryland legends Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter, and current standout Greivis Vasquez. A powerful force on the low blocks, Booth had a knack for the charity stripe, knocking down 576 free throws in 824 attempts, both of which are school records. Booth also stands sixth in the school’s record books with 916 career rebounds and 193 steals.

Learning how to compete at a high level in major college basketball came quickly for Booth. “You had to put in the same work to become one of the top college players,” he says. “Coach Williams really stressed that from day one and I decided to do that. I just wanted to work hard and get better and I felt good and proud to be a part of the Maryland tradition.”

The young Booth chose criminal justice as a major and thought about becoming a lawyer. With the federal government just miles away, he expected opportunities to come knocking. They did, only from the hardwood. “Basketball just took over,” he remembers. He became a professional prospect and was chosen with the 28th pick in the 1997 NBA Draft by the defending world champion Chicago Bulls.

Booth played just two seasons in the NBA, one of them—the 1997-98 campaign—under one legend and along side two others on one of the greatest teams of all time. “I grew up watching Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and going into a situation like that was really good to see, he says. “Playing for Phil Jackson, I got to see and understand the work that goes into preparing each day. I was there to witness it and it helps me to this day.”

Eyeing a career as a coach, Booth returned to Baltimore after his NBA career and began coaching middle school baseball at The Park School. Opportunity knocked again when Williams paid him a phone call. Former Maryland assistant coach Jimmy Patsos left College Park to assume the head role at Loyola (Md.) and Williams wanted to know if Booth was interested in joining the Terrapin staff.

“He [Williams] explained to me what it meant to be a good coach,” Booth recalls. “He made it clear that just because I was once a good player didn’t mean I would become a good coach. It meant I had to put in the same work, probably more as a coach.” Then Williams gave him a few days to think about it.

“I thought about it for five seconds,” says Booth, jokingly. In his first five seasons on staff, Booth has helped Williams lead the Terps to a 103-64 record and two appearances in the NCAA tournament. Given the ledger of athletes and coaches he has had the opportunity to work with, Booth will have the tools necessary to start tradition someplace, someday. It shouldn’t be too hard to accomplish…He already did it twice.