A junior high school band was warming up and a group of Palmer Park teen-agers was practicing a "Welcome Home, Sugar Ray" chant as 14-year old Archie Alston waited in front of the Sugar Ray Leonard Gymnasium for his hometown hero.
Alston and 300 other youngsters and adults from the low-income Palmer Park suburb in Prince George's County ignored the blustery winter wind and cloudy skies yesterday for a chance to see the welterweight boxing champion of the world, one of their own.
"Sugar Ray, he sure know how to do it. He world champion and he from Palmer Park," Alston said as he aimed a mock left jab at his 12-year-old brother, Michael. "I'm going to come up like him and be rich and famous, be somebody."
Alston was hoping for a glimpse and maybe even an autograph at the start of the welcome home celebration for Leonard in Palmer Park yesterday.
The celebration brought out the politicians, well-wishers and hopeful champions. Sugar Ray took it all -- including sitting in the cold for 45 minutes during the outdoor ceremonies -- with patience and a smile.
After the politicians presented plaques and proclamations, Leonard gave the crowd what they had come for.
"In Montreal [where he won an Olympic gold medal in 1976] and last week [when he won the professional title], I represented my people, my community, a low-income community, and I showed the world we can make it, too," he said. The crowd cheered.
"People know where Palmer Park is now," he said to even louder cheers and shouts of "Say it, Sugar."
Leonard assured the crowd, the people with whom he grew up, that fame and fortune had not changed him.
"People say once a young man gets money, gets over a certain limit, he changes," the boxer said. "But if I changed, I wouldn't be here today. And I'm going to do 100 percent of my own work to see this place become beautiful."
The place was Palmer Park shopping center, a largely abandoned commercial strip on Barlowe Road where the community recreation center was converted into the Sugar Ray Leonard Gymnasium. Leonard used the gym to train for his championship bout and plans to set up a public training facility in the shopping center.
Turning his attention to the youngsters of this predominantly black community, Leonard said, "You can be whatever you want, you don't have to be a boxer or a singer. You can be you, okay?"
After the ceremony, when the politicians and Leonard's entourage of family and trainers had escaped to a smaller indoor reception in the gym, Stacy Bray, 8, hopped from one foot to the other to keep warm and planned his future boxing career.
"I'm going to do ballet first this year and then do boxing," he said. "I'm going to be just like Sugar Ray. He's the champion. I'm going to be that good."
Inside, as people maneuvered to have their photographs taken with the champ and others concentrated on cake and coffee, Juanita Wilkinson, Leonard's fiancee, said the couple and their 6-year-old son were glad to be back home among family and friends.
"People just love him here, they love him," she said. "It could be pouring rain or snowing, and they'd still come out to see him." Then she and other family members slipped out the door to do some Christmas shopping.