Before fourth grade, Jalen Smith had only played basketball with his elementary school’s intramural program and a recreational team, where games were essentially just a back-and-forth of one team taking a turn at the basket, then the other team having a chance.
A day or two before Smith’s rec-league championship game, his dad, Charles, a retired naval chief, returned home from a deployment to the Persian Gulf. He took his son to an outdoor court to help him prepare for the game. Jarvis Thomas, who led an AAU program at that rec center, noticed the tall-for-his-age Smith and invited him inside.
That’s when Smith and his dad stepped into the world of big-time AAU ball. They watched a group of second-graders practicing competitively despite their age. Parents and their children saw the college scholarships that stood at the end of the tradition-rich path walked by previous players from Baltimore.
In the city, they play tough and physical, feisty and gritty. They compete with a swagger and with something to prove — all qualities ingrained in the city, where Smith and his Maryland teammate Darryl Morsell grew up and where they’ll return Saturday when the 23rd-ranked Terrapins (7-2) face Loyola Chicago (5-4) at Royal Farms Arena. The style of basketball is a reflection of Baltimore.
“Growing up in that city made me the player I am today,” Morsell said.
Before Morsell arrived in College Park last year, a Baltimore native had not played significant time for the Terrapins since Nick Faust through the 2013-14 season. Now the team has two key contributors from the city.
Earlier in the fall, Maryland’s team practiced in front of a small crowd at Mount Saint Joseph, the high school Smith and Morsell attended. Morsell’s mom, Carolyn, watched from the same seat where she’d sit during games.
“We have so many Terp fans in that city,” Coach Mark Turgeon said of the open practice. “Obviously with Darryl and Jalen, it was good to get them home.”
Morsell and Smith helped Mount Saint Joseph win two Baltimore Catholic League titles, and those years, 2016 and 2017, are printed on a banner hanging in the gym where the Terps practiced for a day.
Morsell and Smith were two of the better players in the league, their coach, Pat Clatchey said, but they joke with each other about their success. Smith played four years on varsity, while Morsell played three. They both won two championships, but since Morsell is a year older, he capped his high school years with a title, unlike Smith. Twice, Smith was named the state’s Gatorade Player of the Year.
While the school filmed a video in advance of Maryland’s game in Baltimore, a staffer asked Morsell to describe what it was like to watch Smith’s senior-year success from afar.
Smith jokingly rephrased the question: “What was it like being in my shadow?”
Morsell answered how he was happy for his close friend but then said, “I'm going to repeat, he still didn't finish his senior year how he wanted it to end.”
With Mount Saint Joseph, the duo would play in packed gyms; assistant coach Doug Nicholas said you had to get a ticket beforehand if you wanted a seat. It would get so loud, Morsell said he could hardly hear the whistle or Clatchey yelling. Nicholas compared these games to major-college-basketball matchups, adding how he rarely experienced such environments even when he was an assistant at UMBC.
“Baltimore, obviously just like D.C., the communities just love really, really good high school basketball,” Clatchey said.
After Morsell committed to Maryland, he quickly became what he called an angel on Smith’s shoulder, constantly reminding him, “Hey, I’m over here. Hey, University of Maryland. Stay home.” Smith did. This season, both are averaging more than 10 points per game.
The end goal for players in Baltimore, regardless of their background or economic class, is to earn a college scholarship. Thomas sees this mind-set from parents at all levels in his program, ranging from the first-grade team to the 11th-grade group.
“They want their kids to try to get college scholarships because that is a way out,” said Nicholas, who’s in his 12th season at Mount Saint Joseph. “It gives them an opportunity that they wouldn't have.”
Every day, Thomas said he sees the divergent routes players can take, with some talented young players succumbing to negative influences. Then there are others, like Smith and Morsell, who can lean on their support at home and excel. When Smith was young, his mom, Lisa, said he’d miss practice if he had schoolwork, and early in the fall, the freshman said his mom called every morning before class to make sure he made it.
“Coming out of the city is difficult,” Morsell said. “Not many people make it out. You've got to have tunnel vision.”
It’s not that Morsell wanted to get out of the city, according to his dad, Duane. He’s proud of his hometown and the way it shaped him as a player known for toughness. It’s where his parents and grandparents grew up, too. Morsell holds on to his city, even as he’s found opportunity outside it.
“But they’re still going to say,” Morsell’s dad said, “I’m from Baltimore.”
Read more college sports coverage: