As members of the Class of ’99 at prep powerhouse DeMatha High School in Hyattsville, Md., Keith Bogans and Joseph Forte appeared to be on the fast track to basketball paradise. Under the tutelage of high school coaching legend Morgan Wooten, the talented teenagers had the basketball world spinning on their fingertips. After posting sensational senior seasons – Bogans lead the nationally second-ranked Mustangs in scoring and garnered first-team All-American honors while Forte was selected as “The Washington Post” All-Met Player of the Year – the duo had seemingly unlimited potential.

Ready to embark on their dreams of NCAA titles and fruitful NBA careers, both stars were headed to storied programs to play big-time college basketball. Bogans would travel to Blue Grass country to play for Kentucky and coach Tubby Smith while Forte would be going south to suit up in the North Carolina baby blue. The pair now dreamed of going head to head on the collegiate hardwood where each would be regular participants in the annual hunt for a national title.

On-court success followed the phenoms to their respective campuses, as both made immediate impacts in their freshman seasons. Under first year head coach Matt Doherty, Forte averaged just under 17 points per contest for a Tarheel squad that finished 26-7. At Kentucky, the 6-foot-5-inch Bogans scored better than 12 per game as the Wildcats’ starting swingman.

By their sophomore seasons, both had emerged as team leaders and were right on schedule as they meticulously followed the blueprint for basketball glory.

But predictable temptation soon followed. For many young athletes the whispers of NBA scouts and so-called experts known as “street-agents” are like a siren’s call, simply too irresistible to ignore. After talking with family and coaches, Bogans fought the temptation and decided it would be in his best interest to remain in school and continue to hone his game at the amateur level. But promises of instant fame and fortune beguiled Forte as the 6-foot-3-inch Forte chose to bypass his junior and senior seasons and enter the 2001 NBA Draft.

Selected by the Boston Celtics with the 21st overall pick, Forte had no clear-cut position in the pros. Not yet skilled enough to play the point and undersized at the two spot, Forte was relegated to the end of the bench for his entire rookie campaign where he played a mere 39 minutes and barely scraped together a stat line. The ex-teammates had now chosen different paths and would no longer share the dream of raising a NCAA championship banner.

While Forte would go weeks on end without shedding his warm-ups for the playoff-bound Celtics, Bogans and the Wildcats were making a name for themselves as legitimate national title contenders. After finishing the regular season with a share of the Southeastern Conference-East crown, they made it to the Tournament’s Sweet 16 round before valiantly bowing out to eventual champion Maryland. Bogans lead the team with an 18.1 point per game average during the Big Dance and was primed to take over the team’s reigns from then-senior Tayshaun Prince.

That off-season, in what should have been the summer before his capstone collegiate season, Forte was shipped to Seattle as part of a five-player swap. Bogans, on the other hand, was gearing up for his final season of college ball in Lexington.

Forte’s woes have continued with the Sonics this year, as he has seen limited action in a mere 15 games. While Forte’s days are as glum as the Seattle sky, Bogans has put together one of the best individual campaigns of any player in the nation, guiding his team deep into the Tournament riding a 23-game winning streak. The top seed in the Midwest bracket, the Wildcats are the consensus favorites to go all the way. Showing improvement in nearly every statistical category from last season, Bogans has also put himself in position to become a first round selection in this June’s NBA Draft.

Bogans doesn’t have the cash, cars, clothes or jewels that his high school buddy Forte does. But what Bogans will come away with after four years at a major university is more precious than any of the material goods Forte now owns. Unlike Forte, Bogans went through his maturing process in a collegiate atmosphere surrounded by people who wanted to help him succeed rather than in some lonely lockerroom where team officials and coaches often view role players as little more than expendable property.

In retrospect, Bogans never left any cards unturned. He played out the full hand and can leave campus free of regret. Forte seems to have jumped prematurely, more than likely in fear of the dreaded “hypothetical injury” that so many insist stands between a potential pro and his potential millions. But a different hypothetical has put its bitter stamp of regret on every dollar bill that Forte claims.

If Bogans were to suffer an injury tomorrow that prevented him from ever picking up a ball again, he would always have a college degree to fall back on as well as the “memories of a lifetime” played out on TV screens all across America during March Madness. Forte, having already abandoned one dream, is left with few options in the case that his pro career does not pan out.

With his dream still alive, Bogans plays on in hopes of a title for “Big Blue” while Forte struggles to wake up from the nightmare that his young career has become. And though the millionaire Forte may have enough money today to purchase all the jewelry his heart so desires, it is Bogans who still has the unique opportunity to vie for one special ring that can’t be bought.

Gerton can be reached at mgerton@campustimes.org.



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