Before the fourth year, Jalen Smith had played basketball only with the intramural program at her elementary school and with a recreational team.
A day or two before Smith's championship game, his father, Charles, a retired naval leader, was returning home from a deployment in the Persian Gulf. He took his son to an outdoor court to help him prepare for the match. Jarvis Thomas, who ran an AAU program at this recreation center, noticed the great Smith for his age and invited him inside.
It was then that Smith and his father entered the world of the big AAU balloon. They saw a group of second-year kids train competitively despite their age. Parents and their children saw the college scholarships that were at the end of the tradition-rich path taken by former Baltimore players.
In town, they play hard and physical, energetic and hard. They compete braggingly and with something to prove – all the qualities rooted in the city, where Smith and his Maryland teammate, Darryl Morsell grew up and where they will come back Saturday, when they will be ranked The Terrapins (7-2) face Loyola Chicago (5-4) at the Royal Farms Arena. The basketball style is a reflection of Baltimore.
"Growing up in this city has made me the player I am today," said Morsell.
Prior to the arrival of Morsell at College Park last year, a Baltimore native had not played much for the Terrapins since Nick Faust during the 2013-14 season. Now the team has two key contributors to the city.
Earlier this fall, the Maryland team had been training in front of a small crowd at Mount St. Joseph, Smith and Morsell High School. Morsell's mother, Carolyn, has been watching from the same seat where she sat during games.
"We have so many Terp fans in this city," said coach Mark Turgeon about open practice. "Obviously, with Darryl and Jalen, it was nice to take them home."
Morsell and Smith helped Mount St. Joseph win two Baltimore Catholic League titles. These years 2016 and 2017 are printed on a banner hanging in the gym where the Terps have been training for a day.
Morsell and Smith are two of the league's best players, their coach, Pat Clatchey said, but they joke about their success. Smith played four years at the university, while Morsell played three. They both won two championships, but as Morsell is a year older, he completed his high school years with a title, unlike Smith. Twice, Smith was named player of the year by Gatorade.
While the school had filmed a video ahead of the Maryland match in Baltimore, a staff member asked Morsell to describe Smith's success when he spent his senior year in senior management.
Smith jokingly reformulated the question, "How was it to be in my shadow?
Morsell answered how happy he was for his close friend, but then added, "I'll repeat, he still has not finished his senior year as he wished."
With Mount St. Joseph, the duo would play in crowded gyms; Assistant Coach Doug Nicholas said you need to get a ticket in advance if you want a seat. That would become so strong, Morsell said that he could barely hear the hissing or Clatchey screaming. Nicholas compared these games to confrontations between middle, middle and basketball, adding that he had rarely experienced such environments, even when he was an assistant at UMBC.
"Baltimore, like D.C., communities really like very good basketball in high school," Clatchey said.
After his engagement in Maryland, Morsell quickly became what he called an angel on Smith's shoulder, constantly reminding him, "Hey, I'm here. Hey, University of Maryland. Stay at home. Smith did it. This season, both have an average of more than 10 points per game.
The ultimate goal for Baltimore players, regardless of their origin or economic class, is to obtain a university scholarship. Thomas sees this mentality among parents of all levels of his program, ranging from the freshman team to the 11th group.
"They want their kids to try to get college scholarships because that's a way out," said Nicholas, who is in his 12th season at Mount Saint Joseph. "This gives them an opportunity that they would not have."
Every day, Thomas said that he saw the different routes that players could borrow, some young talented players yielding to negative influences. Then there are others, like Smith and Morsell, who can count on their support at home and excel. When Smith was young, his mother, Lisa, said he would miss training if he had homework, and early in the fall, the freshman announced that his mother was phoning every morning before start of classes to make sure he was going.
"Getting out of town is difficult," said Morsell. "Few people get out of it. You must have a tunnel vision. "
According to his father, Duane, it is not that Morsell wanted to leave the city. He is proud of his hometown and the way it has shaped him as a player known for his toughness. It's also where his parents and grandparents grew up. Morsell retains his city, even though he has found an opportunity outside of it.
"But they will always say," said Morsell's father, "I'm from Baltimore."
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